State Water Quality Permit Sacrifices Public Health

The coalition backing the following statement includes Citizens for a Healthy Bay, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, the Center for Food Safety, Snake River Waterkeeper, OneAmerica, the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, Aqua Permanenté, the Waterkeeper Alliance, the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, Spokane Riverkeeper, Planned Parenthood, Environment Washington, and Wendy Harris.

The Washington State Department of Ecology issued a revised concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) general discharge permit, five years after the former permit expired. Ecology failed to address the four major sources of pollution from animal feeding operations: land application, lagoons, compost areas and animal pens. Instead, Ecology issued a problematic, two-tiered permit scheme that fails to protect our most fundamental natural resource–clean water.

The waste produced by the animal feeding operations industry is vast. The more than 260,000 adult dairy cows in Washington state produce over 26 million pounds of manure each day collectively. Too much of this manure enters Washington’s surface and groundwater, causing significant public health and pollution problems. The Sumas-Blaine Aquifer in north Whatcom County, home to numerous industrial dairy farms, is the major drinking water source for up to 27,000 residents. This new permit ignores Ecology’s own determination that confirms nitrate loading due to over-application of manure from CAFOs “contributes significantly to groundwater nitrate contamination.”

After being held hostage by the political influence of industrial ag during a five-year renewal process, the agency’s new permitting scheme does little to address the four major sources of animal feeding operations pollution. Instead of issuing one permit that prevents discharges of pollution to surface and groundwater in accordance with federal law, Ecology adopted industrial ag’s unsuccessful legislative attempt to require a state-only permit that authorizes groundwater discharges. This regulatory regime blocks transparency and prevents citizens from protecting their right to clean water.

Ecology disregarded the recommendations of its own scientific experts and did not require groundwater monitoring as part of the permit, even though that monitoring is routine for industrial operations that are known to discharge to groundwater. Ecology has previously acknowledged that all animal feeding operations with manure lagoons discharge to groundwater and has characterized groundwater monitoring as “the best indicator of risk.” But after two decades of knowing about the widespread drinking water contamination, it is still not required in the permit.

Ecology caved to industrial ag’s desire to avoid numeric manure application limits, thereby allowing animal feeding operations to apply manure to the land in a manner that pollutes surface and groundwater. The land application of manure is known to be the largest source of drinking water contamination from animal feeding operations. Lagoons, compost areas and cow pens have also proven to be significant sources of pollution, yet Ecology fails to include measures in the permit that prevent pollution from these sources.

“Ecology was presented with an unprecedented opportunity to protect the environment and public health,” said Andrea Rodgers of the Western Environmental Law Center. “It is outrageous that Ecology has given permission for industrial agricultural facilities to dump pollution into our drinking water. Once again, Ecology puts the burden on citizens to protect themselves from animal feeding operations pollution. We have readily available technological solutions to prevent the pollution and Ecology should be facilitating those solutions, not standing in the way.”

“This permit essentially allows discharge to groundwater for three years without control, consequence or the use of technology we know can stop the pollution that is choking our rivers, imperiling shellfish and endangering salmon,” said Chris Wilke of Puget Soundkeeper. ”Every citizen has a right to clean water. By removing citizen oversight, enforcement and accountability, Ecology has done the ag lobby’s bidding, which does not bode well for our salmon or our waterways.”

“After all these years, Ecology still doesn’t care about the people who suffer from CAFO pollution,” said Helen Reddout, president of the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment.

Charlie Tebbutt, an attorney who successfully prosecuted drinking water contamination cases against three large dairy CAFOs in the lower Yakima Valley, said “Even after proving in a court of law that lagoons built to the standards allowed by Ecology in this permit leak millions of gallons of manure water each year into the groundwater, Ecology has chosen to allow industrial dairies to continue polluting tens of thousands of people’s drinking water. This is both inexcusable and shameful.”

To protect Washington families, friends, and neighbors from being exposed to dangerous levels of nitrates, fecal coliform, and other pollutants in their drinking water, this coalition advocated for the following provisions in its final permit:
• Mandatory groundwater monitoring
• Science-based manure application requirements and restrictions
• Science-based riparian buffers for salmon-bearing streams
• Implementation of best technology for CAFO operations such as synthetically-lined manure lagoons and other known and reasonably available technologies to eliminate discharges to surface and groundwater.

Despite claiming substantial stakeholder engagement and public feedback, Ecology did not include these provisions in its final permit.

“The deficiencies in this permit play Russian roulette with our children’s health,” said Bruce Speight, director of Environment Washington. “More than 4,400 of the 4,600 public comments submitted to Ecology called on the agency and Gov. Inslee to require groundwater monitoring and clear and enforceable limits on nitrate pollution. This solution-oriented approach would identify contamination and reduce the risk of toxic nitrates in drinking water. Despite overwhelming public support for these recommendations, Ecology disregarded them and the critical public health protections they would provide.”

Washington is home to over 400 dairies, with an average herd size of 500 cows. Dairies with more than 500 cows represent more than three fourths of the state’s production. The vast majority of these operations are CAFOs, in which animals are not kept in grazing pastures, but packed together in barns and feedlots, standing in their own waste every day of the year. An adult dairy cow generates 120 pounds of manure per day. The more than 260,000 adult dairy cows in Washington produce over 26 million pounds of manure each day, collectively. Much of this manure is getting into Washington’s surface and groundwater, causing significant public health and pollution problems.

Agencies have found that all unlined manure storage lagoons leak at least 1,000 gallons per day per acre. There are approximately 415 unlined manure storage lagoons in close proximity to the waters that feed Puget Sound, all of which are contributing nitrates, fecal coliform, and other pollutants to the waters of the state.

Groundwater is the drinking water supply for approximately 60 percent of people who reside in Washington state. Several areas of the state with high concentrations of animal feeding operations, including the Sumas-Blaine Aquifer and the Lower Yakima Valley, have been found to have high levels of nitrates in drinking water. Nitrates are toxic. High doses particularly threaten pregnant mothers, babies, and seniors, causing methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome,” which can be fatal. Ecology and the U.S. Geological Survey report 29 percent of sampled wells in the Sumas-Blaine aquifer exceed the nitrate maximum contaminant level (MCL), with 14 percent more than double the MCL. Over-application of manure to fields as fertilizer is common practice and is estimated to contribute 66 percent of nitrate inputs to these residents’ water supply, and 58 percent of nitrate contamination in the Lower Yakima Valley, which hosts the largest concentration of CAFOs in the state.

The Washington Department of Health, other agencies and tribal governments have confirmed that manure from dairy CAFOs is largely responsible for the shellfish bed closures that have plagued Puget Sound.

In January 2015, federal district judge Thomas Rice found that Cow Palace Dairy, a large CAFO in the Lower Yakima Valley, was creating a public health risk by over-application of manure and leaking manure lagoons. The judge found that the dairy’s lagoons leaked a minimum of three million gallons per year, contributing to the contamination of nearby drinking water wells. Local citizens and the Dairy agreed to strict operational changes to remedy the problems, and Ecology has ignored these basic technological fixes.

On January 5, 2017, the Lummi Indian Nation and seven Whatcom County dairy farms reached an historic agreement, the Portage Bay Partnership, to improve water quality in the Nooksack River Basin. The partnership includes a process for farmers and Lummi representatives to work together with agreed-upon experts to review current farm practices and to develop Water Quality Improvement Plans (WQIP) for individual farms. The partnership marks the beginning of a process that will ultimately lead to judicially-enforceable agreements to improve the water quality of the Nooksack River.

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