After years of trying to solve dairy pollution problems through the government, citizens in the lower Yakima Valley have taken matters into their own hands.
A group of residents filed a civil complaint in U.S. District Court last week against a dairy farmer, claiming he lets manure flow off his property into nearby ditches and streams.
“You can smell this town about 10 minutes before you get here,” said Shari Conant, an Outlook, Wash., resident and spokeswoman for the group.
It is the first suit to be filed against a Washington dairy farmer under the federal Clean Water Act. But the complaint against the Sid Koopman Dairy in Sunnyside could be the first of as many as 10 targeting Yakima County farmers.
The Community Association for the Restoration of the Environment (CARE) is taking on the dairies, including one belonging to a Washington State Dairy Family of the Year, armed with the federal environmental law that gives citizens the right to sue anyone who they believe is polluting surface waters.
The association’s efforts have caught the attention of Washington’s agriculture community. Some industry observers say farmers are vulnerable to many more such lawsuits, which also could focus on pesticides and fertilizers that wash off farmland.
“I’m surprised it has taken this long to see a citizen complaint,” said Julie Hagensen, assistant regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She said the Clean Water Act was passed more than 20 years ago.
In November, the Community Association for the Restoration of the Environment sent letters to the 10 dairies notifying them of the group’s intent to sue over the manure.
“The citizen lawsuit notifications have cast a fear over the entire industry because some of the producers who received those letters have done an exemplary job of complying with all the rules and regulations covering manure management on dairy farms,” said Debbie Becker, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation.
CARE was formed in 1997 after several people who live in or near Outlook realized they had legal recourse against dairies that let waste run into waterways. About 50 people make up the group.
According to the group, the dairies keep about 100,000 cows on six square miles of land. During the rainy season, waste from their animals flows off the properties.
“A hundred thousand cows create as much manure as a city of 2.5 million people,” said the group’s lawyer, Charles Tebbutt of the Western Environmental Law Center in Eugene, Ore. “There are serious problems that have occurred at these facilities.”
A number of CARE members said they had tried resolving the waste problems with the farmers through the county and state governments.
“It’s been very, very frustrating,” said Conant. “They’ve tried to form citizen groups, they’ve circulated petitions and they’ve filed complaint after complaint with the DOE (state Department of Ecology) and EPA, hoping to get someone to listen. They got absolutely nowhere.”
The job of regulating dairies normally would fall to the Department of Ecology, but it hadn’t been inspecting farms. In 1997, the EPA took over enforcement of the Clean Water Act in Washington state.
“The Department of Ecology was underfunded and they didn’t have enough people to do the inspections,” said Hagensen of the EPA.
EPA agents have started dropping in at dairies throughout the state for spot inspections, targeting operations the agency believes are violating the Clean Water Act.
Serious violators could face administration penalties of up to $137,000 and criminal charges.
Koopman, the farmer named in CARE’s suit, could not be reached for comment.
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