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It’s time to take a stand: Ecology must hold all industry equally accountable for the pollution they produce

posted Mar 2, 2017, 12:51 PM by Hannah Coughlin   [ updated Mar 2, 2017, 3:12 PM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities ]
By Lee First, RE Sources North Sound Baykeeper

For over thirty years, RE Sources has served this community by protecting the natural resources we share, and ensuring citizens have a voice in advocating for their values. 

Over the past several years, RE Sources has taken a strong stand to protect our shared water resources statewide from an industry that has been polluting water with little accountability: large-scale livestock farming.


Large-scale livestock farming is one of the leading causes of pollution to waterways nationwide, and a major cause of shellfish bed and beach closures in Washington state. Disease-causing bacteria and nitrates found in livestock manure have contaminated well water in Sumas and polluted the Nooksack River, Portage Bay, and other water bodies we depend on for food, drinking water, and our livelihoods.

Despite this impact, Washington state's Department of Ecology is not doing enough to regulate large-scale livestock facilities, called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The agency responsible “to protect, preserve and enhance Washington's land, air and water for current and future generations” is not protecting the people of the state when it comes to regulating this particular industry (other industries are subject to stringent environmental regulations).

Make no mistake — we value our local farmers. We wholeheartedly support our local food system and understand that increased regulation may mean increased costs for farmers. At the same time, RE Sources believes all industry must be responsible for the pollution they produce — no matter how powerful or valuable the industry.


RE Sources appeals the CAFO permits

In February, RE Sources and partner groups across the state filed an appeal with the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB) challenging the Department of Ecology’s recently issued final CAFO permits. 

Nearly 5,000 residents across the state submitted letters to the Department of Ecology as they were drafting an updated CAFO permit in August. The vast majority of those citizens urged Ecology to produce a strong permit that ensured the protection of safe drinking water and uncontaminated shellfish beds using best available science, technology, and appropriate oversight.

Instead of listening, the Department of Ecology produced a weak permit that does not safeguard against livestock manure pollution running off of large farm operations into local waterways or seeping into groundwater. The permit is not science based, and even disregards the findings of Ecology’s own scientists and the research intended to inform the permit design. 

The permit authorizes CAFOs to discharge into groundwater — where more than 725,000 citizens in Washington get their drinking water — by not requiring manure lagoons to be lined with a barrier to prevent leakage (an occurrence that is proven by Ecology’s own scientists). This action foregoes critical accountability, transparency, monitoring, and enforcement mechanisms. It also and puts rural communities and shellfish in the Puget Sound at undue risk of nitrate and fecal coliform contamination.

The way the permit is designed also prevents citizens from taking action under the Clean Water Act, a federal law that grants power to citizens to defend their right to clean water if dangerous pollution threatens water quality. The state-only permit denies that right to citizens.

Despite petitions, scientific recommendations, and letters from thousands of concerned citizens, the Department of Ecology failed to do their duty to protect our shared water resources.

We want farmers to be successful, and we fully realize the value farming brings to our communities, families, and local economies. We acknowledge the challenges farmers face to stay in business, and we’re grateful for the steps several exemplary dairy farmers in Whatcom County have taken to make reparations through the Portage Bay Partnership. We are not in a battle against farmers. We simply want the pollution from livestock operations to be contained, treated appropriately and eliminated as a threat to clean water.

We strongly believe, and will continue to fight for, a system that is fair and works efficiently. As has been proven in the past, good livestock and farming practices CAN coexist with safe, clean water — it just takes determination and cooperation.

Next steps

Stay tuned for updates from the Clean Water program about our progress with the appeal by signing up for Clean Water news. We’ll let you know when the next opportunities open for you to make your voice heard. 


What's wrong with the CAFO permits?

  • The permits fail to require basic water quality monitoring — a requirement of the Clean Water Act.

  • The permits fail to require the use of appropriate technology that reflects known, reasonable, and available methods of pollution prevention (such as synthetic manure lagoon liners) — a requirement of federal and state discharge permits.

  • The permits are unlawful. Federal laws grant power to citizens to defend their right to clean water if dangerous pollution threatens water quality. The state-only CAFO permit denies that right to citizens.

  • The permits allow our drinking water to be contaminated by authorizing CAFOs to discharge pollutants into groundwater, where approximately 725,000 citizens in Washington get their drinking water. 

  • The permits failed to address the thousands of public comments Ecology received asking to prioritize human health and clean water. 

Water quality monitoring

The CAFO permits fail to include basic water quality monitoring requirements. The appeal asks Ecology to include water quality monitoring to comply with the Clean Water Act, which mandates monitoring to track compliance (Notice of Appeal). Water quality monitoring could include: drilling wells and testing water at a deep enough depth (three feet instead of one foot) to determine if nitrates from manure are getting into groundwater. (RE Sources comment letter to Ecology)

Dairy Nutrient Management Act

All licensed Grade A milk producers in the state are required to have Dairy Nutrient Management Plans within six months, and certified plans within two years. These plans are not public information. Once a year, a post-harvest soil test for nitrates is required, at 1 foot of depth. Every three years, a more complete test is required. Producers are also required to sample manure (usually from lagoons) once a year for nutrients. Water quality monitoring is not required by the Department of Agriculture.

Manure lagoons

According to the Department of Ecology, the Sumas-Blaine Aquifer in Whatcom County has nitrate concentrations that have exceeded the limit for safe drinking water for at least 24 years. Ecology itself has stated that manure lagoons NOT synthetically lined are known to leak (Notice of Appeal). The permits illegally authorize discharges without requiring implementation of all available technology (Notice of Appeal).

Combined state/federal and state-only permit

The state-only permit applies to CAFOs that have a discharge to groundwater only, which is “scientific fiction” (Notice of Appeal).
Ecology has explicitly acknowledged that nitrates discharged to groundwater can have direct surface water impacts due to hydraulic connectivity of Washington’s surface and groundwaters (Notice of Appeal). The state-only permit removes the power granted to citizens under federal law to defend their clean water rights if pollution from CAFOs threatens water quality.


Quick links

Read the Notice of Appeal (February 21, 2017)

RE Sources comment letter to Ecology (August 18, 2016)

Environmental groups challenge Ecology’s new permits for industrial dairies (February 21, 2017)

Ecology's CAFO Water Quality Permit Sacrifices Public Health, Drinking Water, Shellfish Beds (January 19, 2017)

Washington State Dairy Federation and the Washington Farm Bureau also have issued an appeal. Read more in the Yakima Herald article or Capital Press.

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RE Sources for Sustainable Communities,
Mar 2, 2017, 3:08 PM