The Washington dairy industry took aim Tuesday at a federal report that identified dairies as the likely contributors to nitrate contamination in Lower Valley wells, saying the September study failed to lay a scientific foundation for reducing the pollution and instead created “confusion, distrust, fragmentation, uncertainty and skepticism.”
The salvo, fired in a news release by the Washington State Dairy Products Commission of Lynnwood, quotes a consulting firm from Santa Fe, N.M., and a dairy expert with Texas A&M University, who conclude the report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lacked sufficient technical data to justify its conclusions.
Yakima County Commission Chairman Rand Elliott also criticized the EPA report in the news release, saying the science doesn’t measure up.
“If the intent of the study is to draw a direct correlation to the dairies based upon scientific information, we believe it failed to do so simply because of the study’s stated limitations and questionable assumptions.”
Elliott submitted his opinions during a comment period on the study, which closed Nov. 30. Elliott leads the Lower Valley Groundwater Advisory Committee, a broad-based group of community and industry representatives charged with developing a plan to reduce nitrate contamination.
EPA has acknowledged shortcomings in the report and recently began drilling monitoring wells near five Lower Valley dairies that were singled out as the likely causes of the well-documented groundwater pollution.
The monitoring wells are an attempt to collect more data, officials said. “It’s pretty obvious, when we released our study, we said it had some limitations,” Tom Eaton, the Washington operations manager for the EPA, said in a recent interview.
Last week, EPA crews started to drill between nine and 13 wells on land owned by Yakima County just outside the property lines both down and up gradient of the five dairies named in the report. The wells will vary between 30 and 250 feet deep. Samples of water will be drawn from the shallowest aquifers.
Adam Dolsen, co-owner of Cow Palace, one of the five dairies mentioned in the report, said the results could provide better information.
“If they drill the wells right, then yeah, they should have a good idea of what’s flowing under our facilities,” he said. “This is just one of these steps of trying to figure out where the nitrate issue is coming from.”
Cow Palace also owns a feedlot near Harrah that has three of its own monitoring wells, Dolsen said.
The other dairies in the report are DeRuyter and Sons Dairy, Liberty Dairy, Bosma Dairy and Haak Dairy, all located north of Granger and Outlook. Based on data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, EPA estimates that lagoons at the dairies leak between 3.3 million and 39.6 million gallons of liquid manure combined.
Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington Dairy Federation, called the EPA’s effort to gather more information about sources of contamination a “sad” attempt at a make-up call.
“They did a crappy report and now they realize they don’t have any data that’s worth anything in their report,” Gordon said.
Environmental activists welcome the wells but lament that taxpayers will foot the $200,000 overall bill, which does not include EPA staff time. They’d like to see the dairies invest some of their own money.
“If they’re creating the situation, they should be putting their own money into cleaning it up,” said Helen Reddout of Granger, president of the Community Association for the Restoration of the Environment. “It’s not our responsibility.”
The EPA report was prompted by a 2008 series in the Yakima Herald-Republic — “Hidden wells, Dirty water” — that detailed regulatory inaction over the years despite studies showing that 20 percent of private wells, relied upon for drinking water by many low-income, rural residents, have concentrations of nitrates higher than federal standards. Nitrates can cause health problems in infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, as well as indicate the presence of bacteria and other contaminants.
When they released the report in September, EPA scientists acknowledged the 307-page document had some limitations. Nevertheless, the conclusion was that water from many residential wells had a chemical makeup similar to that of dairy sources at higher elevations, pointing to the dairies as a likely source of the pollution. For example, nitrate concentrations in residential wells downhill from the dairies exceeded the federal safety limit.
EPA was cautious about linking other chemicals to the dairies. For example, the antibiotic monensin, not used in people, was found in two of the downhill wells, making the five dairies “a likely” source. The hormone testosterone was detected in both downhill and uphill wells, making the dairies “a possible” source.
The study sampled only 26 wells and, with many of them, researchers did not know how deep they were or how well they were constructed. Wells with walls that are not properly lined can allow water at higher levels to seep in and contaminate a sample from what may be an otherwise clean aquifer, skewing data about the source of the contamination. Dairy owners take the position this rendered the data insufficient, and EPA agreed.
“They’re asking legitimate questions,” Eaton said.
The EPA report didn’t stop at dairies. It also called irrigated crop farms and failing septic systems possible sources.
But in its Tuesday news release, the Dairy Federation quoted Saqib Mukhtar, professor and animal waste management specialist with Texas A&M University, who said the study didn’t have a wide enough overall sample base. For example, Mukhtar said that the lack of replicated samples of soil, well water, manure, lagoon effluent and septic system influent collected by EPA don’t represent the “population” of potential sources of contamination.
He also attacked the lagoon leakage estimates that EPA drew from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, saying other research suggests the fibrous nature in dairy cattle manure creates a seal that prevents or limits nitrate leakage.
EPA’s drilling will take about two weeks. Technicians will collect samples by the end of the year, Eaton said. Then, crews will cap and lock the wells, though they may be used in the future.
The agency considered drilling the wells as part of the study in the first place but did not have the money at the time, Eaton said. Officials also were under public pressure to release the results after two years of research and several postponements, he said.
It’s unclear how the monitoring wells affect ongoing legal maneuvering in the wake of the September report, if at all.
The agency issued no penalties with the study but asked the dairies to clean up the sources of the pollution, provide clean drinking water for affected neighbors and create a monitoring program. EPA officials and dairy owners are still in negotiations to draft legally binding written agreements about those requests.
Eaton said the new wells could be used as part of the monitoring called for in the report, as well as for future research.
In October, Reddout’s group, CARE, and a national environmental legal firm sent notices of intent to sue the five dairies in federal court within 90 days if remedies are not pursued. The notices expire in mid-January.
Regulators could derail a lawsuit by taking “diligent” court action of their own, namely enforcement that includes fines, said Charlie Tebbutt, a Eugene, Ore., attorney representing CARE.
“If government would take formal action in the notice period, that could knock us out of the box,” Tebbutt said. But he added that the action would have to fix the problem to prevent a lawsuit
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.