Commentary: State not protecting water from factory farms’ waste

By Dean Effler

Every day in Washington state, factory farms, known officially as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, generate millions of pounds of manure, significant amounts of which are stored in unlined manure lagoons and often over-applied to farmland.

If this untreated waste isn’t managed properly, it contaminates our waterways, shellfish beds, and worst of all, drinking water supplies, putting public health at risk.

The state Department of Ecology recently presented its draft permit for these farms. The permit is supposed to ensure the factory farms protect the environment and people from the impact of too many cows and too much manure and urine on too little acreage. Yakima and Whatcom Counties and the counties near Puget Sound are the areas of our state that are most affected by this industry.

I have reviewed the proposed permit. I believe it fails to protect the environment and the families living near the feeding operations. Ecology has failed to listen to the advice of its own scientists and the neighbors who are affected by these facilities. The agency has bowed to the wealthy, politically connected industrial dairy industry. In fact, Ecology failed to incorporate the vast majority of the suggestions that community organizations, environmentalists and citizens submitted.

The following is a short, not comprehensive list of the deficiencies of the proposed permit process:

1. Ground and surface water testing for nitrates is not required. Nitrate monitoring is necessary to see the extent of the dairies’ contamination of groundwater so remedial measures can be taken.

2. The proposed permit will make it harder and most often impossible for private citizens to use legal action to prevent dairy pollution if the permits end up being ineffectual.

3. The state Department of Agriculture will continue to supervise the factory farms. The federal court case C.A.R.E vs. Cow Palace proved that the Department of Agriculture is either incapable or unwilling to assure that voluntary best management practices are being followed in a way to protect drinking water. The dairies that lost the suit were over-applying manure and had leaking manure lagoons, all while the agriculture department was giving them good grades for their practices. Penalties will not be a deterrent because the departments of Agriculture and Ecology have a history of not using them for dairy violators.

4. The dairies are not required to use synthetic liners with their manure lagoons.

So what is at stake for the neighbors who live near factory farms? In EPA studies of drinking water wells that were down-current of feeding operations showed elevated levels of nitrates, bacteria and chemicals, such as antibiotics and hormones.

Studies show about 20 percent of private wells that people use for drinking water in the lower Yakima Valley are contaminated with excessive nitrates. Elevated nitrate levels are known to cause methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome” which causes infants in the first six months of life to suffer from oxygen deficiency. This syndrome can cause acute illness or rarely death.

Elevated nitrate levels have also been linked to a severe and sometimes fatal birth deformities, neural tube defects. One of these neural tube defects is anencephaly. Infants with this either die in the womb or shortly after birth from a severe brain malformation.

The rate of anencephaly is being studied by the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because the rate in Yakima and neighboring counties has been higher than the national and state average.

After a medical chart review and some limited interviews of mothers, no cause has been found yet for the elevated birth defect rates; however, I believe that the jury is out whether nitrates may have played a roll. Given what’s at stake, the health of babies, we should not be giving factory farms permission to contaminate drinking water.

Washington residents must insist that Gov. Jay Inslee and the Department Ecology provide a strong Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations permit not a weak one.

The current permit proposal is impotent and history suggests it will not be enforced. Because of the provision preventing citizens in most cases from enforcing the permit, it is weaker than the current regulatory process. Please go to the Ecology website,, and provide public comment by 5 p.m. Aug. 31 to demand that Ecology provide a stronger permit that protects the environment and families.

Dr. Dean Effler is a retired pediatrician and a member of Friends of Toppenish Creek. He lives in Yakima.

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