Dairy cows

Dairy cows feed at a Lower Valley dairy in September 2008.

Two Lower Valley dairies accused of polluting the environment are being sued by three environmental groups in federal court.

The lawsuit filed late Thursday in U.S. District Court accuses the two dairies — SMD LLC and DBD Washington LLC — of mishandling animal waste in violation of the Solid Waste Disposal Act.

The environmental groups — CARE, Friends of Toppenish Creek and the Center for Food Safety — sent the dairies letters of intent to sue in February without receiving any reply, said attorney Charlie Tebbutt, who is representing the environmental groups.

Tebbutt has long represented the three groups’ concerns over high nitrates in Lower Valley groundwater and the effect on rural domestic wells.

He contends a lack of governmental regulation and oversight is allowing widespread contamination in areas where there are concentrations of large animal feeding operations and dairies.

“Due to the continued callous disregard by the state of Washington and the federal government to the massive pollution problem in the Lower Yakima Valley, people once again have taken it up themselves to protect human health and the environment,”

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he said.

Both dairies named in the lawsuit changed ownership in recent years. DBD was formerly DeRuyter Brothers Dairy before being sold in 2017 and SMD was previously Snipes Mountain Dairy before being sold last year.

Representatives from the two dairies couldn’t be reached for comment. But Gerald Baron, executive director of Save Family Farming, an organization representing Washington farmers, said the suit was an abuse of citizen lawsuit provisions.

“The Washington State Department of Agriculture conducts inspections (on dairy farms) and they enforce violations,” he said of any potential environmental violations on farms.

“This is not about enforcement of pollution laws, because that enforcement belongs to the state agencies. ... This is not about the environment,” Baron added. “This is about an environmental lawyer enriching himself by abusing the court system.”

Concerns about high levels of nitrates in Lower Valley domestic wells has led to the formation of a study area called the Ground Water Management Area, which spans from below Union Gap to south of Grandview along the east side of the Yakima River.

Federal, state and county officials along with local residents, farmers and dairies have been studying the area in hopes of devising a plan to clean up the water.

Nitrates naturally occur in soil, but heavy use of fertilizers, including animal waste, and leaky septic tanks can cause nitrate levels to increase to unsafe levels.

High levels of nitrates can be particularly harmful to pregnant woman, infants and the elderly, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Dairies are required to have dairy nutrient management plans, which cover the amount of manure applied to fields as fertilizer and standards for manure storage.

This isn’t the first time concerns over high concentrations of nitrates in groundwater prompted a lawsuit. Several years ago, the same environmental groups sued a handful of dairies in the Granger and Sunnyside areas.

A federal study identified the operations of those dairies as contributing to groundwater contamination. In the end, those dairies under a federal consent decree were required to improve the standards in which they handle manure, including installing protective liners in manure storage lagoons.

Staff writer Janelle Retka contributed to this article.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been changed to clarify that the federal study identified dairy operations as a contributor to groundwater contamination.

Reach Phil Ferolito at pferolito@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @philipferolito