The Environmental Protection Agency has not answered U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse’s request to review a study that fingered dairies as the likely cause of an unhealthy level of nitrate in drinking water in Central Washington, according to a Newhouse spokeswoman.
The spokeswoman said in an email that the EPA had not responded to a June 26 letter Newhouse sent to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Newhouse appealed to Wheeler after EPA Regional Director Chris Hladick said there was no purpose in conducting a second peer review of the study finalized in 2013.
The study found too much nitrate in some household wells downhill from dairies in the Lower Yakima Valley. Researchers concluded that manure spread on fields and seeping from storage lagoons were the most likely cause.
Nitrate occurs naturally in soil, but high levels have been linked to health problems, including birth defects, according to health officials.
Newhouse complains the study was not adequately vetted by outside experts and was used to force dairies out of business and into financial peril.
In response, Hladick has said that more recently collected information is consistent with the 2013 report. “The data also indicate that the source control actions taken by the dairies have begun to reduce the nitrate concentrations in groundwater,” Hladick wrote Newhouse.
Newhouse charged in a press release that the EPA changed the report’s classification from “influential” science to “other” to give the agency full control over the peer review.
An EPA spokesman Friday declined to comment on the allegation. The agency won’t answer questions about the matter because an advocacy group, Save Family Farming, has asked the Justice Department to investigate.
“Due to the request by Save Family Farming that DOJ investigate their allegations, EPA is not able to answer questions about them,” the spokesman said in an email.
The study was peer reviewed by a USDA agronomist, U.S. Geological Survey chemist and three EPA scientists. The USDA scientist, David Tarkalson, said the study supported the conclusions, but later asked the EPA to leave his name off the final report.
In an email to the EPA, Tarkalson said the copy he reviewed was missing information, including how much manure leaks from lagoons. “The final version of the report contains information that I did not review in the original draft,” Tarkalson wrote.
Tarkalson works for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Kimberly, Idaho. Efforts to reach him to comment were unsuccessful.
The USGS scientist had criticisms, but found, in general, the study “well written” and “well organized” and “very useful to future studies and/or regulatory decisions.”
The EPA did not include the study in its annual report to the Office of Management and Budget about peer reviews conducted on “influential scientific information.”
OMB defines “influential” as “scientific information the agency reasonably can determine will have or does have a clear and substantial impact on important public policies or private sector decisions.”
Farm groups argue the study has been influential because of its effect on Yakima County dairies and possible influence on future regulations and lawsuits.
Some EPA documents refer to the study as “influential.” In responding to public comments on the study, the EPA said it had “several options” to peer review “influential documents.” In this case, the EPA said it included scientists from USGS and USDA, and “in addition” EPA scientists.
The OMB, in its peer-review guidelines, said “reviewers are generally not employed by the agency or office producing the document.” OMB cites the National Academy of Sciences in observing that internal reviewers “may feel constrained by organizational concerns.”