SUNNYSIDE, Wash. — Three Lower Yakima Valley dairies have reached a settlement with environmental groups ending a lengthy legal battle over groundwater contamination and going, the dairies say, above and beyond federal and state standards for environmental responsibility.
The Cow Palace owned by the Dolsen family, George DeRuyter & Son Dairy, and Henry Bosma Dairy and Liberty Dairy owned by the Bosma family reached individual consent decrees with Community Association for Restoration of the Environment and the Washington, D.C.,-based Center for Food Safety.
The decrees, announced May 11, precluded a trial scheduled to begin in U.S. District Court, May 12.
In January, the court ruled on part of the case involving Cow Palace, saying its operations contributed to groundwater contamination and violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. It was the first time a federal court held that manure from livestock facilities should be regulated as solid waste.
“The vast majority of settlement requirements simply duplicate voluntary commitments made to the EPA,” said Brendan Monahan, a Yakima attorney representing the dairies.
“This case was premised on an EPA study that was fundamentally flawed and unreliable,” Monahan said. Nonetheless, “a sensible balance” has been reached addressing all concerns and allowing the dairies to operate, he said.
“We settled in order to get immediate help to the people directly in harm’s way,” said Helen Reddout, CARE co-founder and president.
“People in the impacted zone will now have safe alternative water until groundwater poisons go away which could be a long time,” she said.
“This is an important precedent holding mega-dairy factories responsible for the environmental and human health impacts of their waste,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety.
In 2012, the EPA concluded the dairies likely were significant contributors to high nitrate levels in groundwater. In 2013, the dairies entered into an Agreed Order on Consent (AOC) with the EPA agreeing to install 20 groundwater monitoring wells, provide reverse osmosis water filter systems to residences with contaminated water, line manure lagoons and implement stringent protocols ensuring manure application to fields is limited to nutrient needs.
“In recent months, the dairies under the AOC agreed to double line their lagoons,” Monahan said. “The cost of transitioning to double-lined lagoons will be extraordinary.”
He said he could not further quantify costs which will occur over a period of years.
The new settlement agreements with CARE, consent decrees interpreted and enforced by the court, will install 14 more monitor wells and expand the scope of mitigation to 2.5 miles from the dairies, Monahan said. It also adds giving residents a choice between reverse osmosis filters or bottled water if they experience 10 parts per million contamination, he said. Residences greater than 60 ppm get both, he said.
The three dairy families will fund water mitigation at $2,000 per month each for five years, Monahan said. Mitigation will be administered by a local, nonprofit group.
The consent decrees expire in five years if there’s full compliance but the dairies will continue to fund the water program until groundwater contamination is under 10 ppm for eight consecutive quarters, Monahan said.
The consent decrees formalize practices that the AOC did not impose on composting, cow pen maintenance and silage, Monahan said.
The dairies have centrifuges or dissolved air flotation to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from liquid manure. DeRuyter & Son has a digester that converts methane gas from manure into electricity. DeRuyter and Cow Palace have been working to convert that to produce natural gas.
“The agreements with EPA and the citizen groups are examples of the dairies embracing the future rather than fighting about the past,” Monahan said. “The dairies dispute that they were contributing to groundwater contamination and the measures being implemented will categorically remove any doubt.”