This post original appeared on the OneAmerica blog
Clean drinking water is a human right. Communities living near large farms face threats to their water quality from agricultural runoff pollution through both pesticides and manure leakage.
Residents of the Lower Yakima Valley are all too familiar with this issue. When we surveyed folks from the area in the summer of 2015, nearly 70% identified air and water pollution as their top concern.
After years of litigation between dairy farms and local communities, the Department of Ecology has released a draft of a permit originally intended to protect water quality from pollution from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), for example dairy farms with at least 500 head of cattle. OneAmerica believes this permit will fail to protect the communities that depend on Ecology to keep their water clean.
SOMETHING IN THE WATER
If they’re not managed carefully, CAFOs can pose a serious threat to public health. Most CAFOs dispose of their mountains of cow manure in “manure lagoons,” or large pools of cow poop dug right into the earth. Scientists across the country, including our own at the Washington State Department of Ecology, have found that these manure lagoons will leak nasty chemicals unless they’re properly lined with something called a double-lined geomembrane.
One of the worst of these chemicals is nitrate, and thanks to too many years of poorly managed manure lagoons in the Yakima Valley, at least 20% of wells in the area have levels of nitrate well above what’s safe for human consumption, and nearly half of the wells near CAFOs have unsafe levels of nitrate. Many of our community members in places like Sunnyside have told us that their tap water is undrinkable.
Why are we worried about nitrate? High levels of nitrate in our drinking water are harmful, and have been linked to cancer,birth defects, and blue baby syndrome in infants. This is especially scary in the Yakima area, where health authorities have yet to find the cause of a mysterious cluster of some of the same types of birth defects that have been linked to high levels of nitrate in pregnant women. The Department of Ecology is required to provide clean water to all Washingtonians to protect us from threats to our health like nitrate pollution.
THE WEAK PERMIT
The Department of Ecology is charged with developing a permit to keep track of CAFOs and ensure CAFOs use the best manure management practices available in order to protect Washington residents, plants and wildlife from nitrate poisoning. However, the newest version of the permit fails to do this. There are many problems with the proposed permit, but OneAmerica is focused on the following:
- The Department of Ecology has not translated any of its materials into Spanish, even though most of the affected communities are primarily Latino, and the adults in many affected families are not fluent in English;
- The Department of Ecology has not studied how a weak permit will affect environmental justice communities in the Lower Yakima Valley;
- The permit does not require CAFOs to use the best available technology to prevent leakage;
- The permit does not impose meaningful penalties or punishment for violations;
- The monitoring steps required will not go far enough – the permit only requires soil testing to a depth of two feet, but nitrate and other pollutants could leak deeper and poison groundwater without registering in these tests
This draft permit protects industry profits at the expense of our communities’ health. Tell the Department of Ecology that our communities deserve better! Submit comments to the Department of Ecology here by August 30th.