A federal judge ruled yesterday that manure from Washington dairy farms poses a significant public health risk by contaminating water supplies in a decision seen as a potential precedent-setter.
Judge Thomas Rice of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington held that manure from several farms exposes residents of the Lower Yakima Valley to nitrate pollution.
The order, in response to motions from four farms, including Cow Palace LLC, lets the case go to trial, in which the judge will try to determine the extent of water contamination.
Environmentalists are hailing the decision as the first to hold that improperly managed manure constitutes a solid waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA.
"There can be no dispute that the dairy's operations may present imminent and substantial endangerment to the public who is consuming contaminated water," Rice, an Obama appointee, wrote in a detailed 111-page ruling.
The case stems from years of efforts by Oregon environmental groups to force greater protections for groundwater and surface water supplies. The Community Association for Restoration of the Environment and the Center for Food Safety brought the case on behalf of 24,000 residents in February 2013, shortly before U.S. EPA entered into an agreement with the farms to address the pollution.
EPA studied the extent of the contamination in 2012. It tested 331 wells in the Lower Yakima Valley and found that 20 percent exceeded the federal drinking water standard for nitrate.
Nitrate contamination can be harmful to human health and, in particular, to infants. It has been linked to cancer and "blue baby syndrome," a potentially fatal condition connected to babies fed formula mixed with contaminated water.
Rice, in his opinion, was particularly critical of the farms' response to those health concerns.
"Alarmingly," he wrote, the farms' argument "seems to suggest" that the court should wait to act until an infant is diagnosed with blue baby syndrome.
He added that "any attempt" by Cow Palace, one of the farms named in the suit, to "diminish [its] contribution to the nitrate contamination is disingenuous, at best."
Cow Palace is located in Granger, Wash. It qualifies as a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, and has more than 11,000 cows on its property, producing milk, crops and manure.
The farm produces 61 million gallons of manure-contaminated water every year from washing cows and 40 million gallons of liquid manure. It composts that manure, sprays it on fields as fertilizers or dumps it into lagoons.
According to expert testimony, the farm's manure lagoons leak millions of gallons of waste into nearby soil and groundwater every year.
"There is no dispute that the groundwater at or near Cow Palace Dairy is contaminated," Rice wrote. "Given the evidence presented, [a judge] could come to no other conclusion than that the Dairy's operations are contributing to the high levels of nitrate that are currently contaminating ... the underlying groundwater."
George Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety said the ruling illustrates the inaction by federal and local agencies to clean up the farms' management practices.
"It is long past due that these dairy factories be held accountable for their toxic waste and compromising of human health," Kimbrell said in a statement. "These dairies' practices harm drinking water and the environment, and we are gratified that the Court agrees that such pollution is unlawful."
Rice made no ruling on the extent of the contamination or whether the farms were polluting surface water, saving those issues for a trial to begin in March focusing on Cow Palace's practices. Proceedings for the other farms, Liberty Dairy, H&S Bosma Dairy, and George DeRuyter & Sons Dairy, will follow.
Cow Palace's lawyer did not return a request for comment by deadline. The farm has indicated in media reports that it is considering quickly appealing the order.
Click here for the order.
Correction: This story was updated to reflect the state in which the farms are located.