Obama’s ‘spilled milk’ joke touched on a real issue

Source: Columbus Dispatch (OH), January 26, 2012
Posted on: http://fpn.advisen.com

The most-painful moment of Tuesday night’s State of the Union address — painful to both political parties and the independents watching — might have been the joke that fell flat when President Barack Obama told it.

“We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 per year proving that they could contain a spill — because milk was somehow classified as oil,” he said. “With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.”

It turns out that, despite the joke, spilled milk actually can be a problem in Ohio.

Over the past five years, the state Environmental Protection Agency has received 33 reports of large milk spills or discharges that involve dairies, dairy farms or trucking companies. Seven counties have reported two spills each.

The problem is that, once milk reaches waterways, it interacts with bacteria so that water is depleted of oxygen, said Linda Oros, a spokeswoman for the state EPA. The bacteria die; then the fish do, too.

In 2007, for example, 700 gallons of milk dumped down a drain on a Fairfield County farm killed 3,800 fish in a nearby stream, said Jim Quinlivan, of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. That happens less frequently with milk than it does with manure or sewage, he said. And milk spills don’t always kill fish.

Obama’s joke referred to the 1973 federal Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure rule. Vegetable oils and the butterfat in milk were considered the same as petroleum under the rule, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2009, the agency proposed exempting milk from that rule, after the dairy industry brought it up. The exemption became effective in April 2011. In a fact sheet on the issue, the agency argues that milk containment and spill prevention are already regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

Farmers would agree, said Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau. Dairy farms are regulated by those agencies, as well as by various state agencies and soil and water conservation districts and can be fined for spills.

Except he didn’t hear farmers complain about it much.

“Farmers might have preferred to hear something more substantive on regulatory issues that are a more-pressing concern,” he said of Obama’s speech.

Among them are the possibilities that the EPA could regulate the amount of dust in the air at farms and more strictly control crop-protection chemicals, he said.

Still, it’s nice to know that the president is thinking about them.

“Most farmers appreciate the president’s comments that unnecessary regulations aren’t helpful,” Cornely said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *