Nitrates, fecal coliform from dairies linked to tainted shellfish, tap water

Shellfish, swimming beaches, and the tap water for thousands of people in certain areas of Washington state are being contaminated by pollutants running off farms, and critics say dairy cows are the chief culprit, according to a KOMO 4 Problem Solvers investigation.

Government regulators are failing to halt that pollution largely because of insufficient laws, pressure from the agriculture industry and too little enforcement, the Problem Solvers review found. Voluntary compliance and good intentions from many dairy farmers have not been enough to prevent dangerous contaminates generated by manure from getting into waters of Washington state.

Only one percent of Washington's roughly 700 dairy farms - some with thousands of cows at one facility - have a permit to pollute, say state agencies.

Many of Western Washington's dairies are located in Whatcom County. When a KOMO 4 News team went to view dairies from public roads, agitated dairymen who saw our camera were quick to confront.

"I think it's time for you to go home," said one who would not give his name. "It's just the fact that it doesn't need to be publicized." When pushed on what he meant, the dairyman said, "There's nitrates. There's not only nitrates, there's water contamination in the in the bays down here. Fecal coliform." He said the dairymen should not always get the blame.

But the views of Washington Department of Ecology researchers, the Washington Department of Health, the Lummi tribe and the Western Environmental Law Center point toward the dairy industry.

Nitrates are created in several ways, including when cow manure seeps into the ground. State and federal health agencies routinely warn that high levels of nitrates found in drinking water can cause blue baby syndrome, may increase chances of certain birth defects, and is associated though not conclusively with increased incidents of cancer in adults.

The Washington State Department of Ecology found nitrate contaminants above maximum acceptable levels in 29 percent of the wells used by homes in Whatcom County, where they found the aquifer is the most contaminated in the state.

"The notice is tacked on our door," said Lori Adderley of Ferndale. She periodically gets a warning notice from her community well water association. The Western Environmental Law Center says one million people in Washington get their drinking water from wells.

Adderley has to buy jug water to keep her family safe.

"I'm not really happy about it," she said a she poured a glass of water from the jug set up in her dining room. "I don't think it should be that way. I shouldn't have to worry about my tap water."

In the old days, dairies were small. Cows grazed. Manure was not an issue.

But today's industrialized dairy farms concentrate hundreds to thousands of cows into one facility.

Just how much manure do they generate? Consider this:

- Each milking cow creates an astonishing 120 pounds of manure daily, the state says.

- The quarter million dairy cows in Washington generate almost as much waste as the city of Seattle.

- Manure from just one midsize dairy is about 44 million gallons a year, equal to the weight of 709 Boeing 737's.

The manure - a smelly broth of urine and feces - is put into these massive lagoons up to 15 feet deep. The State Department of Ecology says even federal design guidelines do not prevent seepage: about 500 gallons per acre every single day directly into the ground. Other documents suggest leakage is vastly more than that.

There are no requirements for dairies to use a synthetically lined lagoon. Dairymen we talked to said the lagoons don't leak - at all - and the manure itself hardens and serves as an impermeable liner in the lagoon. But every expert we contacted said that was not true.

Additionally, sometimes lagoons overload and break, spewing out tens of thousands of gallons of manure that flows into nearby creeks or rivers.

Once in the aquifer just feet below the surface, those nitrates are created.

"I'd like to get out of here at 9:20, if at all possible," said Fred Likkel of the Washington Dairy Federation at the start of our interview, offering just 8 minutes to examine this complex issue.

Likkel even brought two government employees from the Whatcom Conservation District to help end the interview on time.

If dairymen acknowledged their lagoons leak, it might mean they'd have to get permits that require pollution monitoring as the law demands.

So does Likkel, a well-regarded expert on manure issues, believe lagoons leak?

"Ah. Once again, Jeff, it's not a question I can answer," he said.

"Shouldn't you know whether lagoons leak?" he was asked.

"Absolutely. I do consider it an important issue. But as an environmental consultant, I can't be an expert in every area," he said. "The experts say, if there's any lagoon leakage, this is not an issue we need to be concerned about."

"And I am outraged," said Andrea Rodgers with the Western Environmental Law Center which is suing several polluting dairies.

She believes well water contamination from factory farms is one of the most significant public health threats facing Washington state.

"The agencies who are enforcing the environmental laws have looked the other way," she said. "They've looked the other way because of the politics."

Washington state lawmakers took away the regulation of dairies from the state Department of Ecology even though it enforces the U.S. Clean Water Act. Instead, it was given to the state's Department of Agriculture whose mission is to promote the agriculture industry.

"Their job is not to protect the environment. They don't have the expertise," she said. "They don't have the wherewithal. And they don't have the desire."

"Oh, I think we have to be a tough inspector to actually support the industry," said Virginia Prest, the Department of Agriculture's key dairy regulator and, she says, a good friend of dairy farmers. She says dairy farmers want to get it right, and usually do.

A dozen or so have built, with significant taxpayer help, digesters that recycle the manure as a good way to get rid of it, although digesters are not economically viable.

Prest was asked "are you tough enough on them?"

"We are," she said.

The law says you cannot pollute the water whether it's in the ground, in a creek or stream, or Puget Sound. Fines can be $10,000 a day. Yet the Department of Agriculture says it prefers voluntary compliance rather than fines. It issued just nine such fines in Whatcom since 2008.

"I can tell you honestly that when we have a (report of a manure) discharge," Prest said, "and when we take it up to our Director, he signs it. We don't, I mean, there isn't, there isn't any dairyman calling and saying 'don't do this'."

But the another big pollutant from manure: fecal coliform.

When lagoons get full, all that manure is pumped out and applied to fields as fertilizer. The right amount is very effective for farmers.

But about half is trucked off the dairy farm by a third party and, with little oversight, applied to other fields. The dairy farmer has no legal responsibility once the load of manure leaves his property.

State agencies believe sometimes far too much of the manure is put on fields just to get rid of it. Rodgers believes manure is often intentionally over-applied to fields that are empty with no use for fertilizers, during winter when the ground cannot absorb the nutrients and prior to rain that washes manure off the fields and into streams.

As a result, the fecal coliform gets into rivers like the Nooksack where it empties the contaminants onto swimming beaches and prime shellfish beds in Puget Sound.

"Unfortunately, for the second time," said Lummi Tribal Chairman Tim Ballew, "our tribe did have to close our shellfish beds in Portage Bay."

The Lummi's have been harvesting shellfish here for thousands of years. It is who they are, he says, enshrined in the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott - the same treaty giving tribes half the salmon and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"If we can't practice the harvest, our way of life is compromised and so is the treaty," said Ballew. That treaty arms the Lummi's with a legal standing that can get the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which previously stepped in to take over when Washington state regulators fail to properly regulate dairy pollution in Central Washington.

Ballew's Lummi shellfish beds had to be closed in 1997 when Department of Ecology researchers largely ruled out other sources of fecal coliform like wildlife, domestic waste, or storm water - concluding dairy farms "represent a high possibility of being the principal source of fecal coliform contamination."

Ballew is inclined to blame the dairy industry this time too. "It probably played a very significant role," he said.

"Certainly there's opposition to everything we do, at some level." It's Kelly Susewind's dilemma. He's the top dog at the Department of Ecology on these issues. When his agency gets tough on farm pollution, some lawmakers friendly with agriculture push to cut the agency's budget or authority.

We asked Susewind: "That backlash: Has it had a chilling effect?"

"Yes. Yes it has. It's been chilling. It hasn't stopped us," he said carefully choosing his words. "I think we're being more measured."

There remains one unchallenged law: if a dairy pollutes any water, it must get a permit and begin measuring that pollution. While all experts agree all dairies pollute, only one percent of Washington's dairies has that permit.

"The permit says you're not allowed to discharge. But you have to have a discharge for us to cover you with a permit," said Susewind. "It's circular, to say the least."

Susewind says he wants to create more assurances that manure moved off dairies to be applied to fields is done so properly.

Others states face similar manure management issues. In Wisconsin, a judge recently ruled manure pollution was caused by "massive regulatory failure."

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