Yes Virginia, there is poop in your well


There’s an industry that’s been contaminating rural water wells for years, but it hasn’t had to endure the same public vitriol that “frackers” have. Last Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report placing probable blame on dairies in the Lower Yakima Valley for spoiling drinking wells in the area with nitrates and antibiotics.

Local residents had waited four years for the results of the study, which was initiated after the Yakima Herald ran an investigative series of stories about nitrate contamination in the area’s water wells. About 24,000 residents, comprising a third of the Lower Valley’s population, draw their drinking water from private wells.

Nitrate pollution is one of the few manure-related contaminants that authorities can regulate, as HCN has previously reported. Dairy cows produce, on average, 145 pounds of manure per day. That gets flushed into manure lagoons that dairies draw from to fertilize the corn fields which produce feed for their cows. It’s perfect! Except the corn doesn’t use as much nitrogen as the farmers give it, so the excess washes away. And if states don’t have firm regulations, the lagoons leak and also send nitrates and other pollutants into the groundwater. (Air quality around big animal operations also suffers, but that's another story.)

High levels of nitrates have been linked to blue baby syndrome, which afflicts the very young and very old by inhibiting oxygen flow through blood. High concentrations of nitrates may also contribute to other ailments, such as cancer, reproductive problems and diabetes, though more conclusive research is needed.

As we reported last year, despite hard opposition from the dairy industry and advocacy groups, the New Mexico State Environment Department passed regulations requiring dairies to line lagoons with synthetic liners to prevent leakage. Dairies must also install monitoring wells above and below their operations that test for a range of contaminants.

Dairies in Washington and many other states have resisted these simple types of regulations. Sandy Howard, spokesperson for the Washington Department of Ecology said that dairies grew upset over a constant stream of fines they were receiving from the department. In western Washington, dairies say it's tough for them to abide by clean water requirements because the high levels of precipitation wash manure off of their fields before plants can use it up. After receiving pressure from citizens and the state Department of Ecology, in 2003, the dairy industry pushed the state to move regulation of dairies over to the state Department of Agriculture -- whose regulators are said to be friendlier to dairymen. Many small dairies struggling to deal with the manure runoff issue in the western part of the state moved east to places like Yakima Valley. 

“We remain concerned about the nitrates in the groundwater in Yakima County, and we’re looking forward to the results of the EPA’s study,” said Howard.

The EPA’s study in the Lower Yakima Valley is significant because it ties pollution to specific polluters, which means they can be held responsible. But they must be held responsible by the states where they're located, which are in charge of regulation. Dairies have slyly moved around the West to find the states with the least regulations – states like Idaho, for example.

In states like Idaho, Washington and California, much of the nitrogen in groundwater comes from dairies. In the Midwest, nitrogen often leaks into groundwater from fertilizers and feedlots.

Federal officials conceded that their report was limited, in part, because dairies wouldn’t provide specific information on numbers of animals in their operations or quantities of nitrogen leaking from their lagoons. So the report had to use existing information on leakage rates to estimate how much the dairies were polluting. But the study found downstream water wells contained chemicals that would have originated in upstream dairy lagoons, providing “strong evidence that the dairies evaluated in this study are likely sources of the nitrate levels in the drinking water wells."

Of course, there’s enough ambiguity in the report for the industry to try to counter its findings. Dairies say the study did not take into account septic systems, which could also be the source of the nitrates – a common industry excuse – and that it did not take into account different soil types.

"It’s incredibly biased and unfair for a federal agency to not just point the finger at a particular industry but at four specific family farms," Adam Dolsen, co-owner of one of the dairies singled out by the report, told the Yakima Herald.

I can see my little boy, Nico, using that tactic on me one day: “Why are you blaming me for Lego pieces all over the carpet when myriad forces of the universe are in play?” He’s very bright.

It isn’t all that difficult to line lagoons and post monitoring wells. The technology exists and is in use in several states. It does, of course, cost extra money. But as dairies found out in New Mexico, it often takes more to litigate against regulations than to just comply. It boils down to a political fight for people that don’t like being told what to do even if it makes grandmas sick and babies blue.

Neil LaRubbio is the editorial fellow with High Country News. His Twitter handle is @VictorAntonin.

Flickr photo provided by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources