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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Senate panel OKs bill to name agriculture whistleblowers

Kate Prengaman Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA – Are Washington farmers being bullied by anonymous informants who report suspected pollution to the state Department of Ecology, or do those tips allow people to report important concerns without fear of retaliation?

Farm industry officials think the former, and last week they urged lawmakers to support a bill banning the investigation of anonymous tips. SB 6551 was passed with bipartisan support by the Senate Agriculture, Water, and Rural Economic Development Committee last week.

“In this country, we have a right to face our accuser and that’s why I brought this bill forward,” said Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, at a hearing.

But in cases where a pollution violation is issued, the Department of Ecology is the accuser, agency spokesman Kelly Susewind said when he testified against the bill.

“There’s a long road between a complaint and an enforcement action,” he said. “We want citizens to be engaged and to help us identify pollution problems,” and fear of retaliation could “create a chilling effect.”

The agency’s tip line plays a major role in identifying suspected violations, Susewind said, because the agency doesn’t regularly inspect farms like it does other potential polluters.

The ability to report anonymously is important in communities where agriculture is a major employer, such as the Yakima Valley, said Jean Mendoza, an environmental advocate with the group Friends of Toppenish Creek.

“People can lose their jobs or their relatives can lose their jobs if they report not just pollution, but other issues. So many people are afraid to make waves,” Mendoza said.

Requiring tipsters to identify themselves would protect farmers from unfounded harassment, said Evan Sheffels, associate director of government relations for the Washington Farm Bureau.

“It’s not about protecting producers who are violating the law, it’s about preventing them from feeling additional pressure to give up farming or ranching and sell out,” Sheffels said.

“We agree with Sen. Warnick that an anonymous complaint process is not in the best interest of farmers or of the state,” he said.

Warnick said at the hearing she knew there would be concerns with the bill, but she wanted to have the discussion “about how the process works and who should be anonymous and who shouldn’t be.”