Farmers: Flawed EPA study puts family farming at risk

Farmers: Flawed EPA study puts family farming at risk
Washington family dairy farmers and others are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to review a 2013 study attributing high levels of nitrate in the Lower Yakima Valley to current agricultural activity. Photo: freepik.com

Washington family dairy farmers are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct a scientific review of its 2013 study claiming dairy farmers were primarily responsible for high nitrate levels found in the lower Yakima Valley. Family farm advocates argue that not only is the study fraught with errors, but also it has already put some farmers out of business and cost the dairy community an estimated $100 million.

“It threatens the future of family dairy farming in Washington state,” Dillon Honcoop with Save Family Farming told Lens. “Because of this pressure here on our region, it’s becoming less and less sustainable financially.”

Last year, the EPA study was used by Washington environmentalists as part of a complaint with to the State Pollution Control Hearings Board regarding permit requirement for lagoons used to store cow manure. Western Washington dairy farmers were also opposed to the permit requirements.

However, the board a year ago made some concessions to the dairy farmers and ruled against the environmentalists – who claimed the permit conditions were too lenient.

“It was something that was a lot more manageable,” Honcoop said.

However, he points out that the choice to cite the 2013 EPA study in that case is an example of how it could be used again in the future. “It’s certainly hindered family farms that are already in the business to continue to operate without the threat of litigation and all the costs associated with that.”

The problem for Washington dairy organizations is that the study attempting to connect certain dairy farms with high nitrate levels contains significant errors, Honcoop said, starting with classifying its importance. Originally, EPA designated it as “influential science,” which meant a higher level of peer review. However, as the study progressed it was reclassified as “other” and thus subject to lower review standards.

“The EPA didn’t follow its own procedures,” Washington State Dairy Federation (WSDF) Executive Director Dan Wood said. “It’s just quite bizarre what’s going on. It’s clear that procedural errors were made, and poor conclusions were reached, and they’re trying to save face. They just need to own up to the error and say ‘We screwed up.’”

The technical errors in the study have been highlighted by soil scientists such as Steve Wangemann with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In a November 2012 letter, he wrote:“while large diary and livestock operations present a significant potential for groundwater contamination, the current study does not provide the level of scientific proof that I believe is needed to implicate individual operators.”

An example cited by Honcoop of the study’s flaws is that the EPA only used one-inch soil samples, which Wangemann described in his letter as “an extremely weak circumstantial link to groundwater contamination.”

A November 2012 letter from Washington Department of Agriculture Agency Hydrogeologist Kirk Cook notes that “the report appears to suffer from a redirection of the study purpose…from a data collection /research emphasis to a data collection with regulatory actions in mind. The result is a report that does not truly satisfy either goal.” A letter from USA Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Agronomist Richard Fasching recommended the report be “retracted” due in part to “gross or generalized characteristics or data pertaining to soils within the Lower Yakima Valley.”

Shortly after the study was initially completed, Agricultural Research Service soil scientist David Tarkalson requested he be removed from the final report as a reviewer due to additions made to the report after he had reviewed it.

Honcoop said the high nitrate present is the result of previous agricultural activities from 40-50 years ago when the industry in the region heavily used synthetic fertilizer and irrigation water. “We know that the dairy activity there has not really been the size that it has been for 20-30 years.”

Voicing a similar argument is U.S. Rep Dan Newhouse (R-WA). In a June letter, he wrote that the EPA  study “is flawed and continues to be used by both the EPA and environmental litigators to cause severe damage to Washington state’s dairy industry. While dairies can and sometimes do contribute to nitrates in groundwater, overwhelming evidence shows that levels above EPA limits in this area are almost certainly the result of past farming practices and natural higher nitrate levels in this fertile farming production land.”

Honcoop said: “We just want the truth. This document is not giving us truth.”

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