Besides their complexity and size, the giant pools of ground water beneath much of Eastern Washington have another distinction:
They are possibly the nation’s most controversial aquifer system ever considered for special federal protection.
Farmers, lawmakers, rural officials, the nation’s largest garbage firm and even Washington state are attacking a plan to designate the aquifer a sole source of drinking water for nearly 300,000 people.
“I’ve been in government for 23 years, and I’ve never seen this level of hostility before,” said Chuck Clarke, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top regional official in Seattle.
“There’s this fear the government’s going to come in and make things worse.”
The area the EPA is proposing as a sole-source aquifer covers 14,000 square miles, stretching from the Spokane River southwest to the Columbia.
A decision on the plan is expected this spring.
Under the designation, the EPA will have the power to review federally funded projects within its boundary to ensure water quality isn’t harmed.
Proponents say that gives long-term protection to Eastern Washington’s drinking water, which in some areas shows signs of contamination.
Opponents say the state already protects the ground water, and scientists haven’t proven it’s one interconnected system.
When the Spokane-Rathdrum aquifer was proposed for the same type of protection in the 1970s, hardly anyone complained.
The Eastern Columbia Plateau Aquifer System is different. It got tied up in the growing anti-government movement, the November elections and debate over a giant landfill proposed in Adams County.
George Nethercutt, the man who defeated House Speaker Tom Foley, even wrote President Clinton last month, asking him to ax the aquifer plan.
The biggest warrior in the battle is garbage giant Waste Management Inc., which wants to build the Adams County landfill.
It has waged a behind-the-scenes campaign that critics say misleads rural people by exaggerating EPA’s powers to regulate farming, the largest industry over the aquifer.
Waste Management’s political action arm, generous to politicians overseeing environmental issues, dusts the anti-aquifer campaign with cash.
In 1993, Foley asked the EPA to “expedite” the aquifer decision. But last October - four days after $8,000 in campaign donations from Waste Management - Foley asked EPA to take longer.
The November elections intensified hostility toward the EPA, Clarke said. “It’s like blood in the water for sharks. It’s an after-the-election opportunity to impact the nature of regulations in this country.”
Even before he sent the aquifer protection petition to EPA in January 1993, Tom Lamar of the Palouse Clearwater Environmental Institute knew he was in for a fight.
Bradley Marten, a Seattle attorney Waste Management hired to monitor the aquifer issue, called to say the company considered the petition a “hostile move” against its proposed dump, Lamar said. Marten wouldn’t comment on his call.
The sole-source designation would force Waste Management to prove the landfill wouldn’t contaminate ground water, dramatically increasing company costs.
At first, Lamar said he wasn’t too worried about the opposition. Other sole-source aquifer designations enjoyed widespread support, and elected officials didn’t view the proposal with alarm.
In March 1993, Foley, Sen. Slade Gorton and Sen. Patty Murray wrote a joint letter to EPA Administrator Carol Browner, supporting “a timely, expeditious review” of the petition.
The first signal of farm opposition came one month later. One of the state’s wealthiest potato producers, Pete Taggares of Othello, wrote to EPA to oppose the designation.
Taggares and EPA have feuded since 1992, when the federal agency socked him for 479 violations of pesticide-handling laws. EPA recommended a $2.4 million fine. Taggares eventually paid $300,000 to settle the complaint.
Taggares said the aquifer designation would “adversely affect agriculture.”
The simmering controversy started to boil last year when Waste Management launched a multi-front war on the proposed designation.
It included public forums, bureaucratic pressure, political lobbying and the distribution of literature that sole-source proponents call inflammatory.
By January 1994, Marten, Waste Management’s attorney had met with EPA officials several times and demanded notification when EPA talked with aquifer proponents or congressional staff.
On March 31, Marten sent a memo to Louie Meissner, Pasco Chamber of Commerce president, and an employee of the farm supply company Wilbur-Ellis.
The memo included a crude drawing of the aquifer area and claimed EPA could deny farmers federal loans and subsidies - affecting even minor details of farming.
Over the next few months, the memo’s claims appeared in news articles and materials circulated by aquifer opponents.
Scott Cave of Northwest Strategies, a public relations firm Waste Management hired to promote the garbage dump, also began spreading the anti-aquifer message.
An April 15 letter to Foley from the Whitman County commissioners included news clippings and documents that Commissioner Nora Mae Keifer said came from Cave.
“We know Scott’s slant that way,” Keifer said, “but that’s what the farmers that stood in my husband’s shop were saying, too.”
Concerned with growing opposition, proponents met with top EPA officials. In April, Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus asked EPA to stick to its promise to process the petition quickly.
In August, entire sections of Marten’s memo appeared in a summary of the aquifer proposal sent to about 30 farmers and ranchers by the Grant County extension agent. The agent later apologized, and the head of the extension service advised agents to “remain neutral and be unbiased in educating the public.”
But the memo’s main message - that the EPA would control farmers’ lives - was a bell that was hard to unring.
Gretchen Borck, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers’ director of issues, wrote that the aquifer designation “will determine what you can do on your land, how you can farm and even what you can farm. This water issue could be the sleeper that threatens the family farm for survival, not GATT or the 1995 Farm Bill.”
That’s highly misleading, say regional aquifer experts.
“You need to look at who in reality is raising the concerns,” said Stan Miller, the Spokane Aquifer Program manager.
Miller has seen EPA regulation firsthand on the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the second area in the country to be designated a solesource aquifer.
Assuming the EPA acts the same way toward the new region, the farmers’ concerns “are ill-founded at best and unfounded in general,” he said.
Of 35 Northwest federal projects worth $100 million reviewed in 1994 over protected aquifers, only two were changed at EPA’s request. Neither were farm-related, said Scott Downey, head of EPA’s regional sole source program.
“It definitely does not affect agriculture, at least over our aquifer,” said Dick Martindale, a health specialist for the Panhandle Health District in Kootenai County.
Lamar accuses Waste Management of attempting to derail the process by instilling false fears.
“They haven’t been arguing their landfill at all. They’ve been scaring farmers and they’ve also been influential with county commissioners.”
Cave disagreed. “I don’t think it’s misinformation to inform people that the designation means the EPA has the ability to deny federal funding for various federal projects.”
While farmers worry about EPA threatening their livelihoods, William Riley attacks the proposal as more evidence of the spread of big government.
A self-described “former environmentalist,” Riley heads the Big Bend Economic Development Council, a regional business coalition supported by federal Economic Development Administration money.
Riley rallied commissioners from six of the seven affected counties into a new group, the Northwest Council of Governments and Associates, to fight the designation.
The council filed in February with the secretary of state to be a nonprofit corporation. But for months, it has collected up to $1,000 from each of its six member counties for possible legal action and a $5,000 study of the area’s hydrology.
Waste Management’s Cave denied a close association with the group. “I have no role,” he said.
But council meeting notes describe Cave as an “associate,” and Frank Brock, a Franklin County commissioner and president of the group, called Cave an “adviser.”
“Scott Cave of Waste Management has been heavily involved in this. They’ve been talking to the (food) processors and the fertilizer people,” Brock said.
Cave also helped Riley and Meissner set up an an anti-aquifer panel before Foley and Gene Moos of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Spokane Ag Trade Center last fall.
The meeting was supposed to concern the 1995 farm bill. But Cave suggested getting people to request a panel on the aquifer, according to an internal Waste Management memo.
“This is a great opportunity for us to get the sole source aquifer issue in front of Foley, the ag community and the media,” Cave wrote.
Cave acknowledged he wrote the memo, after he was faxed a copy. But he said he had nothing to do with who sat on the panel. “We didn’t advocate an unbalanced committee.”
The anti-aquifer campaign contin ues to gain allies. Sen. Slade Gorton recently joined Nethercutt, Rep. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, and Washington’s five other GOP freshmen in telling EPA to back off.
Sen. Murray is the only one of the original group who isn’t now opposing the plan.
Washington state officials voiced their opposition in January this year. They cited scientific uncertainty about the size and uniformity of the aquifer, and a fear that anti-aquifer sentiment would hinder state efforts to protect water.
As the issue goes to EPA, farm opposition isn’t unanimous.
The Washington Association of Wheat Growers - the industry’s political arm - has chosen to stay neutral.
“We’re going to be battered about by both sides,” Clarke said. “But we have a legal requirement to make a scientific decision, and that’s what we’ll do.”
One graphics: Saving a precious resource or government intrusion? Fighting the Aquifer designation Other Northwest aquifers