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Water violation leads to rancher penalty

A series of water quality inspections and failure to adequately correct the observed violations ended with rancher facing a $14,000 penalty.

BOW, Wash. — Rancher Hugh Mark Blackwood was in the process of correcting water runoff issues when he was assessed a $14,000 penalty in December 2011 by the state agency that had demanded the work.

Blackwood said he’s having a hard time paying the penalty and making the repairs.

The penalty could have been much higher, in the hundreds of thousands.

An inspector from Washington state’s Department of Ecology had sampled water on his property 12 times in the 19 previous months, finding readings as high as 3,500 times the state’s surface water quality standard for fecal coliform bacteria.

Ecology found “a concrete slab partially covered with manure, and a hillside covered in manure-contaminated mud and used cattle bedding, both drain directly to ditches that flow to Wear Creek, a tributary of the Samish River.”

“Ecology was trying to help Mr. Blackwood come into compliance,” field inspector Mark Kaufman said. “We offered technical and financial assistance and contacted neighboring farmers to help him.”

Blackwood, who raises replacement heifers on his 30 acres between Bow and Sedro-Woolley, denied assistance from Ecology, Kaufman said. In the months after the initial inspection in February 2010, the rancher worked with the Skagit Conservation District to develop a farm plan and to implement Best Management Practices to keep manure out of surface water.

Work to divert runoff by sealing a ditch in a culvert progressed slowly, Blackwood said. The Conservation District “took a huge amount of time,” and weather added to the delay.

Ecology issued warning letters and, in January 2011, sent a formal order directing Blackwood to correct the problems.

“We worked our heads off,” Blackwood said. About 60 feet of ditch were yet to be completed when he was assessed the penalty.

Blackwood said the Conservation District had granted him a 90-day extension, but Carolyn Kelly, district manager of the Skagit CD said, “We don’t have the ability to grant an extension. That’s Ecology’s discretion.”

Despite the work Blackwood had done, discharges continued to exceed state standards.

In imposing the penalty in December 2011, Richard Grout, manager of Ecology’s Bellingham Field Office, said the farm was “the single largest ongoing contributor of manure and manure-related contaminants in the Samish River Watershed.”

“Although the penalty being considered is significant, the penalty could have been much higher,” Grout wrote. “When considering 12 inspections with no significant action taken over the period of 19 months, the penalty could have been calculated at $360,000. Additionally, the penalty could have been calculated for 249 days of noncompliance with conditions of (the) Immediate Action Order. Using Ecology’s enforcement discretion, the actual penalty is based upon only one day of discharges above the state water quality standard.”

The Revised Code of Washington addressing violations of surface water quality standards, such as fuel spills and hazardous waste discharge, allows assessment of penalties up to $10,000 per day. Blackwood was cited both for violating the law and for failure to comply with the notice of correction.

Kaufman said when Blackwood’s appeal failed, the penalty was payable and due. Blackwood elected to make payments and he has kept current on them, Kaufman said.

Kelly said the Conservation District continues to work with Blackwood to make sure he implements all necessary practices.

The 75-year-old Blackwood supplements his Social Security retirement income by raising the heifers. He said he has spent $20,000 so far on the penalty and lawyer fees and isn’t sure how he can handle the costs.

“I don’t know. I’m kind of stuck,” he said. “Do I spend money to fix things or just leave?”



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