This Washington State Case Could Have A National Impact On Agricultural Pollution

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A settlement in Washington state could set national precedent for how dairy operations deal with their waste.

Several industrial dairy producers in Washington state agreed to implement sweeping changes to their operations this week. The agreement is part of a court settlement that brings an end to months of legal battles over dairy producers’ role in the pollution of drinking water in eastern Washington.

The settlement comes after a federal court found that one of the dairy operations was contributing to the problem of groundwater pollution in Washington’s lower Yakima Valley, an agricultural area located 150 miles east of Seattle. Rather than fight the ruling through appeals, the dairy operations have agreed to implement stricter protocols for the management, application, and disposal of their manure, including double-lining their manure storage lagoons, limiting manure application to fields, and conducting additional groundwater monitoring. They have also agreed to provide clean drinking water to residents affected by their pollution. The settlement also limits the amount of nitrate plus ammonium allowed in manure applications to 25 parts per million from 2018 onward, down from a loose 45 ppm limit set by the EPA in 2013.

“We got [the dairy operations’] experts to agree that these facilities were at least contributing to the groundwater contamination problem,” Charlie Tebbutt, the attorney representing CARE and the Center for Food Safety, told ThinkProgress. “It was easy for the judge to make findings of fact that the dairies were contributing to the problem because their experts agreed to that fundamental precept.”

The decision, Tebbutt says, sets a floor for operational practices for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) across the United States. Double-lined lagoons, mandated for the first time by the ruling, may soon become standard practice for concentrated animal feeding operations across the country.

“The judge made the findings that all of these earthen lagoons leak, even if built to standards,” Tebbutt says. “All CAFOs with earthen lagoons had better start double lining them, or else they are targets too, because their lagoons leak just like these.”

In January, following a series of lawsuits filed by the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment (CARE) and Center for Food Safety, a federal judge ruled that Cow Palace — a large industrial dairy operation in eastern Washington state — had polluted local drinking water through the improper application, storage, and management of its manure. It was the first time that a court treated this improperly handled manure as solid waste rather than a beneficial farm product, and also the first time that the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to control hazardous waste, was applied to farm animals.

According to the ruling, Cow Palace produces more than 100 million gallons of manure and water waste annually.

To deal with large amounts of manure, dairy operations currently either dispose of the waste in inground holes (called “lagoons”) or apply it to fields as fertilizer. When improperly managed or applied to land in excessive amounts, manure from agricultural operations can seep into groundwater, contaminating it with nitrates. When present in drinking water in high amounts, nitrates can cause health problems for infants and people with compromised immune systems. They can also indicate the presence of bacteria or other contaminants in the water.

According to the Yakima Herald, decades worth of testing from private wells in Washington’s lower Yakima Valley — an agricultural area some 150 miles east of Seattle — have shown concentrations of nitrates higher than federal limits allowed under the Safe Water Drinking Act. In 2013, the EPA released a report linking several dairy operations in the lower Yakima Valley to the high concentrations of nitrates and other contaminants in drinking water. Though the dairies and their experts disputed the findings, they entered into an agreement with the EPA to better control their nitrate pollution through stricter protocols for irrigation and nutrient application.

This week’s agreement goes further than the one in 2013, however. Even those on the side of the industry allow that the latest ruling and settlement are indicative of a larger movement in agriculture.

“These dairies recognized the irreversible trend across all segments of agriculture towards sustainable farming practices, and they’ve also have seen a developing consumer preference for businesses that place a premium on environmental responsibility,” Brendan Monahan, the attorney representing the dairy operations, told ThinkProgress. “These dairies chose to embrace the future rather than continue fighting about the past.”

But Tebbutt notes that while Monday’s settlement means that hundreds of homes in the lower Yakima Valley will soon have a safe, alternative source of drinking water, the issue of groundwater contamination caused by concentrated animal feeding operations isn’t unique to eastern Washington.

“These same problems are occurring everywhere in the United States, it’s just that no one was looking. It was don’t look, don’t find,” he said. “Here now, we’ve looked, and we’ve found, and we know that there is a problem and the policy must change.”