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Proposed manure lagoon causes push for stricter regulation in Dryden

Matt Richmond
Heather and Tim Gowe stands on potential manure lagoon site

Manure lagoons help farmers manage their manure, but one planned lagoon in Tompkins County caused a neighbor to look for a way to fight it.

Heather Gowe is not sure where exactly the proposed manure storage lagoon will be built. It will be somewhere in a small stand of trees, up a hill from the intersection where she lives.
Beck Farms is a dairy producer who will build the lagoon. It has about 2,000 cows in Freeville in Tompkins County. It wants to store 3.2 million gallons of manure on this hill, and build a pipeline to transport the manure.

Gowe and her husband Tim, are not happy about it.

“You can’t stop it. If there’s something that goes wrong, if something comes unhooked, that manure is coming through here,” Heather Gowe said.
"Here" is a small swamp at the bottom of the hill.

It is along the manure pipeline’s proposed route and across the street from her house.

The state categorizes this area as a wetlands. So the farm needs permits to build a pipeline through it. And they got those permits from the Department of Environmental Conservation on April 21.
Lorraine Schmitt is the Gowes’ lawyer. She has raised questions about whether the pipe will be buried deep enough.

It will have manure moving through it just a few days a year. Schmitt questions whether it will be completely cleared the rest of the year. If it’s not completely cleared, the pipe could freeze and burst.
Then there is the manure lagoon itself.
“It [the manure lagoon] is certainly at the top of the list of concerns, however my client has no opportunity to look at the potential plans,” Schmitt said.
Those plans are not publicly available.

Since the lagoon is outside of the wetlands, it’s not part of the DEC’s permitting. And the town of Dryden would only issue a permit if the project disturbed more than an acre of land. 

Projects built on farmland aren’t subject to siting review. Schmitt and her client, the Gowes, want Dryden to change its zoning so the town can review a project like this.
Dryden Supervisor Mary Ann Sumner said she understands their concerns but does not see what good that would do.
“I see no way around this kind of problem, that when something comes as a surprise to people they’re alarmed,” Sumner said. “They feel it’s being done in the dark of night and for some secretive reason and that doesn’t seem to be the case here.”
Beck Farms did not respond to a request for comment.

Dairy farms like it are heavily regulated already. They need an approved system for handling manure that limits water pollution.

In New York, a farm can manage its manure use by building a storage lagoon like this one.

The Department of Agriculture and Markets offers grants. Beck Farms received one. And to be eligible, they submitted a plan for the whole project to Tompkins County’s Soil and Water Conservation District. They approved the plan because it complied with best practices.
But the conservation district office is the only regulator that has reviewed the whole project. Dryden supervisor Sumner said she is not thrilled with the idea of building the lagoon, but she is not sold on changing zoning so the town can have a say.
“It’s not a bad idea, but the degree to which I think a town can add information is probably not much,” Sumner said.
So Heather Gowe does not seem to be getting the response she is looking for.

After the DEC issued the permits, and she realized that her only remaining option was to go to court, Gowe decided that she would put her house up for sale and just move away.

Matt Richmond comes to Binghamton's WSKG, a WRVO partner station in the Innovation Trail consortium, from South Sudan, where he worked as a stringer for Bloomberg, and freelanced for Radio France International, Voice of America, and German Press Agency dpa. He has worked with KQED in Los Angeles, Cape Times in Cape Town, South Africa, and served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. Matt's masters in journalism is from the Annenberg School for Communication at USC.