Environment | Communities

EPA Report Links Yakima Valley Nitrates to Dairies

GRANGER, Wash. – A federal agency has concluded that dairies in the Yakima Valley are likely contaminating residential wells. Scientists and other officials presented the information this week to local residents.

The Environmental Protection Agency wanted to link nitrate contamination in residential wells to specific sources like:

  • dairies,

  • croplands,

  • or septic tanks.

Scientists sampled more than 300 wells and found up to 20 percent had high nitrate levels. They concluded that dairies were the most likely source of the contamination.

Nitrates come from manure and fertilizers. When they contaminate drinking water, nitrates can be harmful to children and some adults.

Mike Cox is an environmental scientist with the EPA. He says around 25,000 people in the Lower Yakima Valley drink from private wells. He told local residents at a meeting why that’s important.

“The private wells are not regulated. They’re not monitored. There’s no treatment requirements,” Cox says.

Some Yakima Valley residents have complained for decades about nitrate contamination in their wells.

The EPA tested five dairies in the Yakima Valley. Dan DeRuyter’s dairy, George DeRuyter and Sons Dairy Outlook, Wash., was identified in the study. He says he will work to limit nitrate contamination.

“My family and many of the employees that work here, they live around the dairy. And I want to make sure they have clean drinking water as well,” DeRuyter says.

Scientists conducted the study in three phases. First, the EPA identified historical contamination.

Then, in February 2010, researchers sampled 331 homes and found that about 20 percent were above the drinking water standard for nitrate levels. Most of those homes clustered around the cities of Granger, Sunnyside and Mabton.

Phase three took place in April 2010. Scientists took a more targeted look at 26 residential wells and three wells that supply water to dairies. All of the homes had high nitrate contamination. One dairy supply well did, too.

Tom Eaton is the EPA’s Washington operations manager. He says contaminated wells are a long-term problem for one of the Northwest’s top-producing agricultural areas.

“It’s going to require a long-term solution. Nothing’s gonna happen overnight,” Eaton says.

Because groundwater moves slowly, Eaton says, it could take years to see results. That prompted some in the audience to complain that they’ve been waiting long enough.

Some farmers at the public meeting questioned the study’s conclusions. They were concerned that EPA scientists only knew the depth of some of the wells. That’s important because deep wells are less likely to be contaminated than shallow ones. Farmers also claimed researchers did not have enough statistical data to back-up their conclusions.

Environmental activist Jan Whitefoot says she thinks this study is will spur officials to help clean Yakima Valley’s wells.

“I hope there’s some enforcement against the polluters, plain and simple. And some relief to the people that do have bad wells,” Whitefoot says.

The EPA is working with the operators to limit pollution. Officials are discussing a plan with the five dairies studied. Many in the crowd pressed the EPA to explain how it would stop farmers from polluting and who would pay for cleaning up the wells. But officials refused to go into detail.

The study also found fields that grow crops, like hops and mint, are a likely source of nitrate contamination. However, scientists said the link was not as strong to croplands as it was to dairies.

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