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

posted Feb 21, 2017, 10:56 AM by Virginia Cleaveland   [ updated Mar 2, 2017, 3:40 PM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities ]
On Feb. 17, 2017, a coalition of environmental groups filed an appeal with the Washington state Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB) challenging the Department of Ecology’s waste discharge permits for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). 

The appeal alleges the permits fail to include basic water quality monitoring requirements and fail to require best-available technology for CAFOs such as synthetic manure lagoon liners, which prevent pollution from manure leaking into groundwater. The appeal also alleges the permits lack necessary standards to ensure compliance with state and federal water quality laws: the state-only permit authorizes groundwater discharges and removes the power granted to citizens under federal law to defend their clean water rights if dangerous pollution from CAFOs threatens water quality. 

Uncovered piles of manure at a cattle CAFO in Yakima County, Washington in July 2016.

According to the appealing groups, Ecology’s new permits fail to prevent the four major sources of pollution from CAFOs: land application, manure lagoons, compost areas, and animal pens. The permits authorize CAFOs to discharge into groundwater, which threatens the drinking water that many communities depend on. The permits also failed to address the thousands of public comments Ecology received asking for permits that prioritize human health and clean water.

CAFOs, or large industrial feedlots, generate more than 26 million of pounds of manure each day in Washington state. The manure, which contains nitrates, fecal coliform bacteria, and other pollutants, is often over-applied, untreated, directly to farmland, or is stored in unlined manure lagoons that are known to leak.

Overapplication of manure and leaking lagoons can release pollution into surface water and groundwater, causing serious public health issues and threatening industries dependent on clean water, like shellfish farmers. Swimming beach closures and shellfish bed closures are frequently the result of water quality problems resulting from high levels of fecal coliform. The over-application of manure has been linked to contamination of drinking water due to high levels of nitrates. In Washington State, more than three-quarters of pollution cleanup funds between 2005 and 2013 were used to clean up waters contaminated by agriculture.

Ecology’s new permits — a state-only permit for CAFOs that discharge to groundwater, and a combined state/federal permit for CAFOs that discharge to surface water — were issued a full five years after the former permit expired.

The coalition, represented in the appeal by the Western Environmental Law Center and the Law Offices of Charles M. Tebbutt, includes national organizations Center for Food Safety, Waterkeeper Alliance, and Sierra Club; Yakima Valley organizations Community Association for Restoration of the Environment (CARE) and Friends of Toppenish Creek; and Puget Sound organizations Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and RE Sources for Sustainable Communities.

“Every resident of Washington has a right to clean water,” said Chris Wilke, Puget Soundkeeper. “By removing the power granted in the Clean Water Act for individuals and communities to defend their waterways, this permit tramples on those rights and sets a precedent that dangerous pollution can occur without consequence. It’s inexcusable to put public health at risk when there are known solutions to the problem.”

“The courts have been our only bastion of hope and ability to affect positive change,” said Helen Reddout, president of CARE, which has been working to highlight the issue since the 1990s. “It is now time for the state courts to step up to protect our communities.” As a resident of the lower Yakima Valley, Reddout’s own well is contaminated with nitrates from manure pollution.

“Sixty percent of the wells within a mile of a cluster of Yakima County CAFO dairies are unsafe for drinking,” said Jean Mendoza, executive director at Friends of Toppenish Creek in Yakima County. “The people who use these domestic wells (groundwater) would be unaware of the problem if not for litigation that has been brought under federal laws. Citizen lawsuits are the best way to protect public health from CAFO pollution. The new dual permit eliminates that option.”

“We applaud a small group of farmers who recently formed the Portage Bay Partnership and are taking necessary steps to help clean up fecal coliform pollution in our local waters,” said Ann Russell, Clean Water Program manager at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities in Whatcom County. “But when a state agency responsible for protecting human health fails to adequately regulate the dangerous impacts from industries, it is our duty to demand stronger permits that protect drinking water and shellfish beds.”

“Ecology has spent six years drafting a new waste discharge permit for CAFOs and unfortunately the agency has still not written something that protects the waters of Washington," said Andrea Rodgers, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “Fortunately, citizens can turn to the courts when agencies don’t comply with their statutory obligations to protect public health and the environment.”

“The permit is as irresponsible as it is unlawful,” said George Kimbrell, attorney with the Center for Food Safety. “The communities and environments being damaged by these industrial animal factories deserve protection, and we are going to court to get it.”

“For well over a decade, Ecology has been acutely aware of the dangers manure pollution poses to people and the environment, yet it continues to put profits for the few over the good of the many,” said Charlie Tebbutt, long-time attorney for impacted communities. “Ecology’s continuing refusal to protect people despite the mountain of evidence is truly shameful.”

“Ecology disregarded the law and issued a permit that actually authorizes untreated animal waste to be discharged into Washington’s waters,” said Kelly Hunter Foster, senior attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance. “This is dangerous, and Ecology knows that, but the agency chose to shield industry instead of protecting public health.”

Under the administrative appeal process, citizen groups have the right to challenge final agency actions and rules to ensure that regulations adequately protect public resources and comply with the law. The groups seek rewritten permits that comply with the law and protect public waterways and water resources.

Media contact: Virginia Cleaveland, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, 360-733-8307 x217, virginiac@re-sources.org