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Hawai'i CFS

After Decades of Citizen Complaints, Dozens of Lawsuits, and a Safe Drinking Water Petition, EPA Takes Yakima Dairies to Court and Seeks To Halt Pollution

July 08, 2024
Center for Food Safety

Yakima Valley, WA – Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) filed for a preliminary injunction to halt dairy pollution of groundwater against three mega-dairies in the Lower Yakima Valley. EPA filed the case in late June, alleging these dairies—which house over 30,000 animals collectively—failed to control the nitrate pollution from their operations, leading to contamination of community drinking water wells. The case comes after decades of citizen action seeking EPA and state enforcement of our clean water and hazardous waste laws and is based on EPA's 2013 legal agreement with the dairies and EPA's authority to protect drinking water under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

With this latest motion, EPA asks the federal judge to require dairies to continue groundwater monitoring, offer nitrate testing to area residents and free filtration units with maintenance or bottled water, and to immediately test their lined waste lagoons for leaks due to EPA's suspicion that a recent windstorm caused damage that is leaking significant amounts of nitrates to groundwater.

This action comes after decades of advocacy by the community, including a dozen clean water act citizen suits, three decades of citizen complaints, precedent-setting RCRA cases that set the gold standard for CAFO remediation and source control, challenging the State's general permit not once, not twice, but three times, and the health of some ten thousand residents at risk.

"The Friends of Toppenish Creek are deeply grateful to the Environmental Protection Agency for taking bold action to protect the groundwater that is so precious to the people who live in the Yakima Valley. In this preliminary injunction we learn that mega dairies that brag about being highly regulated, have in fact ignored their own commitments to protect groundwater," said Jean Mendoza of Friends of Toppenish Creek. "For example, EPA's complaint states these three dairies failed to report the destination of 9 million gallons of liquid manure and 80,000 tons of solid manure that were transported offsite in 2023 alone. It would have been nearly impossible for neighbors to discover this deception on our own. Thank you, EPA."

Also in October 2021, Friends of Toppenish Creek, Center for Food Safety, and Food and Water Watch petitioned EPA to exercise its emergency powers under the federal law to limit and mitigate groundwater contamination from CAFOs in the Lower Yakima Valley. Despite knowing for years that the area is contaminated with unsafe levels of nitrates, the state and EPA for too long ignored this public health crisis. The 2021 petition demanded that EPA take action to address the sources of much of the nitrate pollution in the groundwater, namely the large mega-dairies that generate huge amounts of solid and liquid animal waste, which contains nitrogen that turns to nitrate in the soil.

"Center for Food Safety has allied with community members and community-based organizations for decades to demand action from the state, EPA, and to use all available legal tools to clean up these dirty mega-dairies. People's health and lives are at stake and are more important than profits flowing to out-of-state millionaires," said Amy van Saun, senior attorney with Center for Food Safety.

Overapplication of mega-dairy waste to fields and leaching from lagoons and other areas of the factory farms allows runoff and leaching of nitrates and other contaminants into surface and ground water. Nitrates are odorless, colorless, and flavorless, so the only way to know if wells are contaminated is by testing. Consuming high levels of nitrates impedes the bloods' ability to carry oxygen, leading to serious conditions like "Blue Baby Syndrome" and birth defects, as well as chronic illnesses in adults like cancers, thyroid disease, and other maladies.

Free Water Testing and Safe Water for Residents:

Residents of the Lower Yakima Valley should get their well water tested and can access free testing and clean drinking water through Yakima County for any wells exceeding the EPA's safety standard of 10 mg/L nitrates. Residents can also contact the Clean Drinking Water Project, a non-profit, for free testing and free filtration equipment or bottled water.

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