A newly nominated federal judge ruled Friday that he wants to hear more about dairies in Washington State’s Yakima Valley that may be contributing to groundwater contamination, and he will do so at a civil trial that’s certain to be watched nationally because it challenges large-scale farming practices in the dairy industry.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice, a former federal prosecutor who last year joined the federal bench for the Eastern District of Washington based in Spokane, means the case brought by the Community Association of Restoration of the Environment (CARE) and the Center for Food Safety against five Yakima Valley dairies will proceed to trial.
Nitrate levels in the ground water –a problem in the Lower Yakima Valley going back a half-century or more–worsened because of dairy farming practices, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In a 2012 study of private wells around the dairies, EPA found that 20 percent of 331 wells tested had nitrate levels above federal drinking water standards, raising a health risk for the 24,000 residents of the area.
While there is agreement about the nitrate problem, there are differences over remedies. The five diaries and EPA in March entered into a legally binding agreement that requires specific actions to assure the area has safe drinking water. It was hailed by state and federal officials, but was not embraced by the plaintiffs in the civil case.
Charlie Tebbutt, attorney for CARE and the Center for Food Safety, told the Yakima Herald Republic newspaper that the EPA agreement “only reinforces the use of failed strategies that will not solve the contamination and will continue to put the Lower Valley residents at risk.”
In a statement issued after they won the judge’s decision to go to trial, the two groups said they ”look forward to obtaining an order from the Court requiring the dairies to clean up so that the taxpayers are not stuck with the bill while the dairies reap profits at the expense of the community.”
The five defendant dairies are: Cow Palace Dairy, George DeRuyter and Son Dairy, D&A Dairy, Liberty Dairy and H&S Bosma Dairy. The environmental lawsuit alleges that leaking lagoons and over-applied manure combined to form a major public and environmental health threat.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, nitrates are formed naturally when nitrogen combines with oxygen or ozone, and they are essential for all living things. However, high levels in drinking water poise a health risk, especially for infants and pregnant women.
Fertilizers, septic systems, animal feedlots, industrial and food processing wastes, CDC reports, can elevate nitrate levels in drinking water. Private wells are more likely to experience high nitrate levels during times of flooding or if they are dug too shallow.
Under the EPA agreement, the dairies will modify their nitrate handling practices and begin an eight-year groundwater-monitoring period to determine the effectiveness of their efforts. They will also test the private wells of their neighbors and provide alternative water sources for any wells found to exceed the federal drinking water standard for nitrate of 10 parts per million.
Alternative sources might include filtration systems, bottled water, or digging new deeper wells. The dairies would assume all costs.
EPA is also asking state agencies, including the Washington State Departments of Agriculture and Ecology, to strengthen management programs governing manure application so that it is applied at property rates. In addition, a Lower Valley Groundwater Management Area organization will work on comprehensive solutions to groundwater contamination.
Other actions called for in the EPA agreement include:
- Farms will consider planting crops with longer root zones, which would absorb more nitrates as nutrients and send less into the ground.
- Soil samples will be regularly tested for the presence of nitrates at acceptable levels.
- An irrigation water management plan will be implemented to measure the amount of water applied and installation of sensors to minimize water movement below the root zone.
- Nitrate contributions from silage storage will be reduced.
- Manure lagoons will meet standards for leakage.
- Reduced ponding of liquid in cow pens to cut infiltration of nitrogen-rich water.
- Roof runoff ponding on the ground will be controlled.
- All furrow irrigation will be eliminated within two years
- Solid animal waste will be managed to minimize liquid leaching into the ground.