A congressman and Washington farm groups are asking Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler to reconsider a groundwater-pollution study that has troubled the state’s dairy industry for seven years, a review the regional director has declined to make.
In a letter this week to Wheeler, Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Central Washington Republican, said the 2012 study was flawed and never adequately reviewed by outside experts, but continues to be used to regulate and sue dairies.
The letter came after dairy representatives unsuccessfully lobbied EPA Regional Director Chris Hladick, who concluded there was no purpose in revisiting the study done under his predecessor in the Obama administration.
“The way we view Newhouse’s letter is he’s asking EPA Director Andrew Wheeler to follow through on the commitment the Trump administration has made to move the EPA toward more transparency in science,” said Gerald Baron, director of Save Family Farming, an advocacy group involved in meetings with Hladlick.
The EPA study reported that household wells below dairies in the Lower Yakima Valley had elevated levels of nitrate. Nitrate occurs naturally, but high levels have been linked to health problems, including birth defects.
The EPA concluded dairy manure spread on crops and leaking from storage ponds was the likely source of too much nitrate.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, Washington State Department of Agriculture and others criticized the EPA for jumping to conclusions. They said the study was incomplete and warned against using it to regulate dairies.
The study, however, led to an administrative order directing dairies to control pollution. Newhouse said one dairy has spent more than $11 million to comply. Two others are on the brink of financial ruin, according to Newhouse.
Newhouse said the EPA should retract the study until it conducts an outside review. Farm groups are pushing for EPA to call in the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.
Hladick told Newhouse in a letter last month that the administrative orders are starting to reduce nitrate levels in groundwater.
“While some remain critical of the study, seven years later the EPA has not received any scientific studies or raw data as the basis for reconsidering the study’s conclusions, or the basis of the” administrative orders, Hladick wrote.
Hladick did hold out the possibility of a new report based on information gathered since 2013.
Save Family Farming responded July 2 that a new study would be “a step in the right direction,” but asked that the USDA be involved from the start.
Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon said that a new review matters because the EPA study attacked the worthiness of USDA-approved manure lagoons and is cited in lawsuits against dairies.
“It’s still being used as a weapon of destruction,” he said. “How many more times will a judge defer to the EPA as the best available science, when it’s not, in our opinion.”
Farm groups contend that EPA should have submitted the study to more outside experts.
Hladick responded that the EPA conducted internal and external peer reviews and took public comments in 2012. The EPA made some revisions before finalizing the report in 2013, but the conclusions remained the same.