Groups Poised to Sue Yakima Valley Farms Responsible for Public Hazards

  • Sharebar
    Date: 
    October 18, 2012
    Image: 

    The Center for Food Safety and the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment (CARE) -- both represented by Public Justice -- warned four major Yakima Valley (Ore.) factory farms that they will take them to federal court unless, in the next 90 days, the farms stop contaminating local drinking water supplies with runoff from their dairy operations and begin to make amends for the damage they have already caused.

    Representing the two advocacy groups, Public Justice served 90-day Notice of Intent to Sue letters, alleging that the farms have committed repeated violations of federal environmental laws. The notices come three weeks after the EPA released a 307-page report, noting that all wells downstream from the Haak Dairy and a "cluster" of four other dairies in the lower Yakima Valley are significantly contaminated with nitrates, bovine antibiotics, and other pollutants.

    Nitrates can cause severe health problems such as blue baby syndrome, several forms of cancer, autoimmune system dysfunction, and reproductive problems.

    According to the prospective plaintiffs, the dairies create as much pollution as about 3.1 million people -- more than 13 times the entire population of Yakima County.

    "The prospect of allowing this massive pollution to continue unchecked is completely unacceptable," said Helen Reddout of CARE. "While we are relieved EPA has finally taken notice of the problem, their conclusions fail to recognize the urgency of this situation. Hopefully, the EPA report and our pending legal actions will help other communities create the change that needs to happen."

    "EPA's findings are one more nail in the coffin of factory farms and a food production method that preys upon vulnerable populations and disregards environmental and health concerns," said Elisabeth Holmes, staff attorney at the Center for Food Safety. "The Yakima Valley is only one example of the sacrifice that hundreds of local communities are forced to make. These lawsuits will be a meaningful step toward forcing factory farms to change their practices, take responsibility for their actions, and remediate the environmental contamination they have caused."

    The EPA study showed that 20 percent of the 331 wells tested in the Yakima Valley region had nitrate levels above the federal drinking water standards, posing a clear danger to the more than 24,000 residents who rely on private wells for drinking water. With a surface area of 32 football fields for manure storage, the cluster dairies leak between 3.3 million and 39.6 million gallons of manure per year into the soils. The Haak Dairy leaks between 482,000 and 5.9 million gallons of manure annually.

    Nitrate-laden manure escapes into surrounding soils and groundwater, and enters the private wells residents rely on for drinking water.

    "Current manure storage systems are deliberately designed to leak millions of gallons of manure each year into surrounding communities," said plaintiffs' attorney Charlie Tebbutt of Eugene, Ore. "If EPA can't make immediate moves to solve the imminent and substantial dangers nitrates pose to Yakima Valley residents, these lawsuits will force the necessary fix."

    During the course of the study, EPA asked the cluster dairies and the Haak Dairy to disclose basic information about their operations, such as the number of animals, quantities of nitrogen, and estimated lagoon leakage. The dairies refused to cooperate. The notices claim that the dairies in question have caused an imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment, and that the dairies' manure application practices constitute illegal "open dumping" of solid waste.

    The magnitude of the problem in the Yakima Valley is not unique. Nationwide, factory farms store enormous quantities of manure, much of which is deliberately released into surrounding environments.

    "These dairies have been dumping their waste into the community for years, and it is time for them to clean up their act," says Jessica Culpepper, the Public Justice attorney representing the plaintiffs. "These groups are standing up for clean food, clean water, and clean air, and these lawsuits are an important step to getting their community back."

    The notices also alleged reporting violations of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. Those statutes require the dairies in question to report the release of certain hazardous airborne pollutants, including ammonia, to specific state and local agencies. The dairies have 90 days to resolve the violations discussed in the notices or face the possibility of lawsuits.

    In addition to Tebbutt and Culpepper, CARE and the Center for Food Safety are represented by Brad J. Moore of Seattle, Wash.

    The case is CARE v. Haak Dairy.