Food safety and clean water always make for a good marriage. That can be seen in a recent legal settlement involving two large dairies in Eastern Washington that were accused of contaminating the water and soil in the area. The goal of the settlement is to stop the animal waste from the dairies from polluting the local drinking water and harming the environment.

Three environmental groups, CARE, Friends of Toppenish Creek, and the Center for Food Safety, took it upon themselves to tell the court that this mishandling of animal waste and over-application on fields as fertilizer is contributing to high levels of nitrates in groundwater, which in turn affects people’s wells. 

The decree requires the dairies to upgrade the way they manage their manure, help restore the aquifer by remediating nitrate and ammonia contamination beneath the dairies’ lagoons, and fund research to compare two remediation methods that focus on shallow aquifers beneath porous soils.

This is not an isolated case. This spring, six residents from Eastern Oregon, along with members from Oregon Rural Action, went to the state Capitol to ask the governor for a specific plan to stop nitrate contamination. Their concern is that the groundwater in the area, which includes Morrow and Umatilla counties, has suffered from nitrate pollution for more than 30 years. And they pointed out that groundwater is the main source of drinking water in the region. They have demanded that the governor declare a public health emergency in the region. As in the case in Washington state, manure from mega-dairies and how it is handled is the problem.

Manure and more manure

Together the two diaries in Eastern Washington have 5,800 cows. That adds up to a lot of manure because a mature dairy cow can generate anywhere from 65 to 120 pounds of manure a day. 

Large dairies typically have manure lagoons, where they dump the dairy waste and pull it out when the lagoons reach a certain level. That manure slurry is typically applied to the land as a form of fertilizer. The problem with the lagoons is that the leakage of millions of gallons of manure from the storage ponds can lead to nitrates and phosphorus contamination of groundwater and drinking water.

In the settlement, the dairies are required to double the linings in the lagoons or close them, install more than a dozen groundwater monitoring wells, improve land application of dairy waste to avoid further contamination and participate in a pilot project set up to extract nitrates from area groundwater.

“We now have a plan to stop future pollution and clean up the existing pollution,” said Helen Reddout, president and co-founder of Care. “It’s about time.”

Time comes into the picture.

“The remedial measures to be undertaken should speed clean-up of the groundwater by a decade or more said Charlie Tebbutt, lead counsel for the community groups and an attorney for CARE for 25 years. “The community deserves better protection that what the state has provided, which has been virtually nothing.”

He said that once again, the people had to use the federal environmental laws to protect themselves from rampant pollution.

“The rest of the dairy industry needs to follow suit.”

How bad was it?

CARE’s Helen Reddout, a determined 93 years old, said that the nitrate levels in the tap water were so bad that doctors were telling people not to touch the water— not even when they were washing their hands under running water.

“You can’t see it, smell it or taste it,” she said. “But it can cause serious health problems.”

As part of the settlement, the dairies will fund alternative sources of clean drinking water for people who live near the dairy operations. 

Another concern in all of this are the many farmworkers who work in the valley. 

With all the persistent pushing for improvements that her group and others did, Reddout said the dairy owners actually became more aware of the problem.

“When we first started, you’d see black manure coming out of the dairy pipes and going into the creeks.” she said. “ The dairy owners would say, ‘‘Once it’s off my property, it’s not my problem.’”

CARE’s Helen Reddout, a determined 93-year-old, said that the nitrate levels in the tap water were so bad that doctors were telling people not to touch the water— not even when they were washing their hands under running water.

Then, you’d also see manure slurry flowing out of the barns and into the road ditches that led to the creeks.

And the smell, it was awful she said. “So awful that you couldn’t keep an air conditioner going. And you didn’t even want to go outside in the summer.”

“It tore up my life,” she said, explaining that she had wanted to have a nursery where people could come out and buy flowers and plants. “No one would want to come out to a place that smelled so bad,” she said.

Then there’s food safety

Amy van Saun, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety, said that mega-dairies are problematic for food safety in several ways. 

“First, they generate a massive quantity of waste, which contains not just nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, but also pathogens like E coli, animal drug residues, and heavy metals,” she said. “That waste is then spread on crop fields, some of which feed the cattle, but others are crops we directly eat, including some that are certified organic. They also contaminate surface and groundwater that is used for drinking water and to irrigate crops.”

She also said that many of the outbreaks of pathogens on lettuce and spinach and other crops like that are tied to nearby spraying of waste or contaminated irrigation water from large animal operations. 

“By getting these mega-dairies under a consent decree, they will be required to better manage their waste to avoid that ground and surface water contamination, and be more careful about what they’re spraying on crops,” she said. 

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