Officials seek cause of lagoon failure

Washington Department of Ecology Multiple Washington State agencies responded to the breach of a 21 million-gallon dairy waste lagoon in Snohomish, Wash., Monday, April 12. An estimated 15 million gallons of manure spread onto Bartelheimer fields and into the French Slough and Snohomish River. Cleanup efforts and an investigation into the cause of the breach are under way.

15 million gallons of waste spill onto land, nearby slough


Capital Press

Washington state and federal officials are trying to figure out why a 13-year-old dairy lagoon failed near Snohomish, Wash., spilling an estimated 15 million gallons of waste onto the surrounding farmland.

Larry Johnson, state conservation engineer for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, estimated that 15 million gallons of manure flowed from the lagoon onto farm fields. Some of it reached French Slough, which feeds into the Snohomish River.

The farm, owned by the Bartelheimer Brothers, milks 750 cows and grows 600 acres of corn and hay for cattle feed.

"We're doing everything we can to respond to this lagoon failure," Jason Bartelheimer said in a Washington State Department of Agriculture press release. "Our goal is to prevent further manure runoff into French Slough."

The lagoon breach occurred on the northwest side, away from the slough, so manure initially flowed away from surface water and onto the Bartelheimer property, WSDA communications director Jason Kelly said.

Public health agencies advised the public of the potential for manure exposure in the surface water, Kelly said. The Washington State Department of Health and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are also monitoring the situation.

Washington Department of Ecology spokesman Larry Altose said results of fecal coliform tests were pending, but the river appeared to be doing OK with dissolved oxygen, which might affect fish.

The NRCS and Ecology are investigating the cause of the lagoon failure.

Johnson said this is the first dairy lagoon failure he has seen in his 18 years with the conservation service.

"We're very interested in determining the cause of failure," he said.

It's premature to point fingers at any possible cause, Johnson said. An investigation committee will attempt to determine the cause.

The dike is 15 feet tall and the lagoon bottom is 5 feet below ground level. The basin is 580 feet in diameter. The breach was more than 30 feet wide and drained the lagoon of all contents above ground level.

The lagoon was constructed to USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service standards in 1997 and permitted by the Department of Ecology's Dam Safety Office because of its size.

Johnson said it is one of the largest structures the conservation service has assisted in building.

Most dairy lagoons don't require state dam safety permits, Johnson said.

He advised dairy owners with similar waste facilities keep up routine maintenance, quickly addressing growing vegetation, rodent problems or slopes that appear wetter than normal.

"In general, it's just good practice to make sure they're maintained at the same operational condition from the first day they were installed," he said.

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