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Groups Petition EPA to Protect Washington's Drinking Water from Factory Farm Pollution

October 27th, 2021
Center for Food Safety

YAKIMA VALLEY, WA—Yesterday, Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, and Friends of Toppenish Creek petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to exercise its emergency powers to limit and mitigate groundwater (including drinking water) contamination associated with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the Lower Yakima Valley in Washington. In the petition, the groups urge EPA to address the too-long ignored public health crisis and ensure clean drinking water for Washingtonians.

"There are areas in the Lower Yakima Valley with very high levels of nitrate in well water. Nitrate is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, but it can slow children's development and bring about early death to parents and grandparents," said Jean Mendoza, executive director for Friends of Toppenish Creek and a Yakima Valley resident. "We ask EPA to bring the force of science and the law to the Yakima Valley and we look forward to a time when the water from domestic wells is once again safe to drink."

Like many other parts of the nation plagued by pollution from industrial agriculture, the residents of the Lower Yakima Valley are suffering from drinking water contamination that has been likened to rural America's "own, private Flint." Nitrate contamination from CAFOs poses an imminent and substantial threat to human health. Elevated levels of nitrate in drinking water are known to increase the risk of a wide range of very serious health problems, including birth defects, blue-baby syndrome, various cancers, thyroid disease, and other maladies.

The groups' petition is based primarily on data that have been compiled by EPA, Washington Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Agriculture, and Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Advisory Committee, all of which demonstrate that nitrate concentrations in public water systems and underground sources of drinking water have routinely exceeded federal and state drinking water standards, putting the health of area residents at serious risk.

"Despite knowing for decades about this silent public health crisis, Washington's local and state governments have failed the people of Yakima Valley for too long, allowing industrial dairies to pollute their drinking water with impunity," said Amy van Saun, senior attorney with Center for Food Safety's Pacific Northwest office. "Clean water is a basic right, and one that cannot be sacrificed in the name of cheap milk."

The groups' petition comes on the heels of past, voluntary measures employed by Washington State that have been unsuccessful at reducing nitrate concentrations in crucial drinking water sources to below federal and state standards. Despite the voluntary measures, the unambiguous and unabated trend in the region is towards ever greater levels of nitrate contamination. Ignoring the dire data, Washington officials have repeatedly neglected to implement regulations that would mitigate the pollution, prompting local residents and environmental groups to turn to the federal government for needed protections.

"CAFOs are historically under-regulated and Washington State officials have effectively abandoned their responsibility to protect people by doubling down on their failed approach to preventing groundwater contamination, which continues to put control in the hands of the very polluters that have created a pervasive threat to human health," said Tarah Heinzen, Food & Water Watch Legal Director. "The Safe Drinking Water Act fully empowers EPA to take emergency action to protect human health in Washington in these circumstances, and the petition demonstrates that it must."

In the petition, the groups urge EPA to protect Washington residents by taking necessary action to protect the health of people who use the drinking water, such as requiring CAFOs to modify their manure management practices, ordering polluting operations to provide to free and safe alternative source of drinking water for impacted communities, and prohibiting CAFOs from expanding operations until nitrate concentrations fall below unsafe levels. Additionally, EPA should notify the public about potential contamination, investigate the specific entities and land use practices causing the contamination, publish a survey of potentially contaminated wells near CAFOs, and more.

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