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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Dairy Lawsuits

Air Date: Week of

Lawsuits are flying in Yakima County, Washington against dairy farmers. The charges: cow manure is causing water pollution in violation of the Clean Water Act. KUOW’s Tom Banse (BAHN-see) reports these suits might be the beginning of a trend, especially in states where large dairy operations are expanding.


CURWOOD: Bureaucrats call it non-point pollution, but a group of citizens in Eastern Washington state use plainer language to describe what is fouling local water: cow manure. These activists have filed lawsuits against five large dairy operations in the region, a hardball legal tactic thatâs causing some hard feelings in some quarters.

Tom Banse from member station KUOW has our report from Sunnyside, Washington.

BANSE: Yakima Valley activists have been spying on their neighbors. In the evening mostly, they set out in pairs with camera, video recorders and notebooks.

REDDOUT: We're always on county roads, or on county right-of-way. And it's things that are purely visible to the naked eye, you know. And then we put Îem on either our camcorder or we take stills of it.

BANSE: Helen Reddout is the ringleader of the so-called Dairy Watch gathering evidence of water pollution. The retired schoolteacher serves as president of a group called CARE, which stands for Community Association for the Restoration of the Environment. CARE has lodged citizen lawsuits against five dairies for alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act. One settlement cost a dairyman half a million dollars.

(File drawer; office rustling)

BANSE: In her home office, Helen Reddout flips through the pages of her photo collection, The Family Album of Doo Doo she calls it.

REDDOUT: Umm, this is some of the ooze that was coming out into the road. And then these little dark spots are flies that are all over it.

BANSE: The surveillance initially led to angry confrontations between the activists and their targets. Now at one of the dairies being sued, a hand-painted sign faces the county road. It reads: Attention: This field is located in an agricultural area. It is subject to noise, dust. Pungent odors are to be expected. The activists dismiss this defense.

REDDOUT: The right to farm does not mean that people have the right to pollute. They cannot come in and ruin your way of life.

BANSE: Reddout blames excesses of manure spread on nearby fields for contaminating her groundwater. She says that led the health department to Îred-tagâ her drinking well. On the advice of their lawyers, none of the dairy farmers being sued would tape an interview. But others in the milk business are talking. Washington Dairy Federation President Debbie Becker calls the litigation a nightmare. Becker says the industry has a commitment to stop pollution.

BECKER: We've seen dramatic improvements by this industry -- dramatic. And the only downside to this has been this litigation and these lawsuits in Yakima because it's really complicated all the good work that's been done.

BANSE: The dairy inspection manager at the Washington Department of Ecology agrees local dairies have cleaned up their act. But Phil Kauzloric is mindful of the increasing size of the average dairy farm. Kauzloric says one cow produces as much poop as twenty people do every day.

KAUZLORIC: Say, if you have a 1,000 head dairy farm, that's roughly equivalent to a town of 20,000 people. So, certainly management of the waste becomes more complex. But on the other hand, in our view too, as the farms get larger, financially they should be in a better position to make the investments necessary to adequately manage the waste.

BANSE: Kauzloric might as well be describing the situation of dairyman Dan DeGroat.

(milking barn ambience)

BANSE: DeGroat owns over a thousand cows on his farm near Sunnyside, Washington. All day long, the cows line up to be milked.

DEGROAT: This is the milking parlor.

BANSE: Between milkings and feedings, the herd mills about in large dirt corrals. Elsie the cow no longer ranges over meadows of grass and daisies.

(Sound of spraying/farmhands whistle)

BANSE: That requires an elaborate system of drains, holding tanks, gutters and just plain shoveling to keep all the cow poop contained.

DEGROAT: You know, when I built the dairy I was well aware of environmental concerns so I tended to oversize all the lagoons.

BANSE: I see one of them there...

DEGROAT: Thatâs one of them. And there's another one next to it that's empty.

BANSE: Dan DeGroat has spent heavily on environmental upgrades and is proud to show it off. He tries not to let the lawsuits flying all around him get on his nerves. DeGroat himself has not been sued.

DEGROAT: The citizen lawsuits are generally individual cases that are looked at by a certain, very small group of people. I'd say the vast majority of the community in this area is pro-agriculture and certainly pro-dairy farmers. We bring a huge economic base to this valley.

BANSE: Another nearby dairyman says the continuing litigation now amounts to extortion. The farmer says heâs passed two state inspections with no problems, but still is being pressured to pay a settlement. Helen Reddout says the activist neighbors will carry on until thereâs no threat to the water.

REDDOUT: There has been improvement in the valley. But your question, has it been enough that we can back down? No, it hasn't. Not when you have wells that are polluted.

BANSE: And Reddout says water quality may only be a start. Members of her group also want to use the Clean Air Act to attack the stink that sometimes rises from their lush valley. Federal EPA dairy expert Bub Louisell describes the discord in Washington as just the tip of the manure pile.

LOUISELL: The problem as far as animal wastes, animal wastes that you realize from either a beef feedlot operation or a dairy operation are much broader than just Eastern Washington.

BANSE: Louisell says for a long time, agriculture took a back seat to other pollution priorities. But, not anymore.

LOUISELL: This sector has risen to the top as far as getting national attention and I expect it to remain there for several years.

BANSE: Environmental regulators suggest different solutions for different farms. For example, one dairy may stay out of trouble merely by spreading manure a little more judiciously on surrounding fields. Another might have to put in bigger storage lagoons. A third could be asked to bulldoze earthen berms everywhere sewage could run off. Bub Louisell says he hears often from farmers that the cost of regulations is killing them, to which he offers this advice:

LOUISELL: You either pay the price today to fix it up or you pay an exorbitant price tomorrow because EPA has busted you. Pay us now or pay us later.

BANSE: The dairy federations on the West Coast all can name member farmers whoâve relocated inland in search of friendlier territory. Idaho, New Mexico, even Kansas, are home to many more dairy cows than just a few years ago. The farmers benefit from having fewer human neighbors, and the weatherâs drier, which means fewer problems with runoff. But the activists are following close behind. The Western Environmental Law Center, which represents the unhappy neighbors in Washington state, is now preparing similar pollution lawsuits in Idaho. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Banse, in the Yakima Valley, Washington.



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