FACT CHECKING MEDIA COVERAGE ON ISSUES
IMPORTANT TO WHATCOM FAMILY FARMERS
PUGET SOUNDKEEPER ALLIANCE AND OTHER ANTI-FARM ACTIVIST GROUPS MAKE NUMEROUS FALSE CLAIMS AND DISTORTIONS IN ATTACKING ECOLOGY’S NEW CAFO PERMIT
On January 18, 2017 the Washington State Department of Ecology issued its long awaited Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permit. Anti-farm activists, led by lawyers who pursue lawsuits against dairy farmers, fought hard for provisions in the permit that would have eliminated most dairy farms from Washington state. Now that the permit is issued, they are making a number of false statements about the permit and pollution from dairy farms. Using environmental protection as a cover does not make false claims true. Instead, if regulations demanded by these activists were adopted, the result would harm our environment through the loss of most of our family dairy farms. We encourage all citizens, and particularly those concerned about the environment, to carefully weigh the facts.
1. Does the new CAFO permit give farmers the legal right to pollute our waters?
Andrea Rodgers of the Western Environmental Law Center is a lawyer and the leading spokesperson for the anti-farm activists. In a Capital Press article on January 19, Rodgers was quoted: “It is outrageous that Ecology has given permission for industrial agricultural facilities to dump pollution into our drinking water.”
Rodgers is well aware of the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act, one of the most stringent dairy farm regulations in the nation. It allows for zero discharges of manure to water. It specifically addresses the primary issue of contamination from dairy farms which is application of manure – organic fertilizer – to grow primarily feed crops for the dairy herd. Farm plans require application of manure only when it can be safely applied to avoid runoff and at times of the year when plants can take up the nutrients. Even minor spills or equipment failures can result in citations and fines. Dairy farms are regularly inspected and regulations are enforced. The Washington State Department of Agriculture reported in 2016 that more than 95% of dairy cropland was in compliance with nitrate-related regulations. There is NO permission to pollute and farmers did not need another permit to prevent pollution which has been effectively addressed by existing regulations and enforcement.
2. Are Washington dairy farms “industrial agriculture?”
Rodgers and other anti-farm activists like to use the term industrial agriculture. The Washington Policy Center points out that in our nation 97% of farms are family owned and operated and in Washington that number stands at 95%. Some are large, most are small. The average herd size of a dairy farm in Washington is about 500 cows, quite small by today’s global economics where efficiencies are gained by larger operations. For example, dairy operations in other places around the world such as Saudi Arabia and China have herds of 130,000 cows. Using “industrial agriculture” is an obvious attempt to generate public scorn on hard working family farmers.
3. Does the manure produced by cows mean vast pollution?
The press release issued on January 19 by a consortium of anti-farm activist groups states an oft-repeated “fact”:
“The waste produced by the CAFO industry is vast. The more than 260,000 adult dairy cows in Washington state produce over 26 million pounds of manure each day collectively. Too much of this manure enters Washington’s surface and groundwater, causing significant public health and pollution problems.”
Further on they state that “Much of this manure is getting into Washington’s surface and groundwater, causing significant public health and pollution problems.”
They might also have mentioned that Washington state has seven million citizens who produce, on average, a pound of “manure” per day. Most understand that our sanitary sewage systems prevent that waste from polluting. At least they are supposed to. Regulations applying to dairy farms are more stringent than those applying to home septic systems, which are a major if not the primary cause of water contamination. As mentioned above, dairy farms are allowed zero discharges under the law. The statement says “too much of this manure enters Washington surface and groundwater…” and later, “much of this manure” pollutes groundwater. What proof do they offer for this claim? There is no proof because it is a false statement. On the other hand, the EPA reports that just five residential septic systems can contribute up to ten times more pollutants to water than a one acre manure lagoon. The public health issues the anti-farm activists attribute to dairy farms are more appropriately attributed to contamination from human waste.
Water scientist Dr. Marylynn Yates published a study of contamination from septic systems which stated: “The majority of waterborne disease outbreaks are caused by bacteria and viruses present in domestic sewage. Septic tanks contribute the largest volume of wastewater, 800 billion gallons per year to the subsurface, and are the most frequently reported cause of ground-water contamination associated with disease outbreaks.”
4. Do CAFOs cause significant public health and pollution problems?
The last part of the accusation listed in item 3 says that the pollution they attribute to CAFO’s causes significant public health problems. This is similar to the false accusations made by the same source on the discredited “What’s Upstream” website. The press release further states: “The deficiencies in this permit play Russian roulette with our children’s health,” said Bruce Speight, director of Environment Washington.
Nitrates in groundwater are restricted to no more than 10 parts per million by the EPA. The reason for this is what was believed for years to be the link between nitrates in groundwater and methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome. This is a very serious disease of newborn infants which affects their ability to take in oxygen. The link was first established by a science study in the 1940s that concluded the cases of blue baby syndrome studied were caused by high nitrates in contaminated wells. Now, numerous articles published on the National Institutes of Health website and in other respected science journals are questioning that link. This disease is now shown to be a genetic disorder affected by bacteria. The contaminated wells also contained high levels of bacteria, but for years the bacteria connection was dismissed. In California, an EPA scientist evaluated 42 cases of methemoglobinemia over 13 years. The Region 9 EPA scientist, Dr. Bruce Macler, stated: “None specifically associated with nitrates.” “Only four of the 42 cases were in areas where there were wells.”
What makes the claims about the high danger from nitrates interesting is the fact that while the EPA says 10 parts per million in water is a significant risk, other branches of government actively promote nitrates in our diets. Leafy vegetables like beets, spinach and celery are high in nitrates and promoted as part of a diet good for heart function. Athletes consume beet juice before events to support cardiovascular performance because of the high nitrates. These vegetables contain 2500 times the nitrates that the EPA says are dangerous. It is true, that the only health risk consistently associated with high nitrates is blue baby syndrome, and newborn infants are not typically fed leafy vegetables. But, we wonder why there are no warning labels on baby food given the perceived risk of nitrates to newborn infant’s health.
While the evidence against a 70 year old science conclusion is fading, the EPA’s restriction stands. What is troubling in the anti-farm campaign is that claims of an extreme risk to public health simply do not accurately portray the state of the current questions about the risks versus benefits of nitrates.
5. Do CAFOs contribute to nitrate in groundwater?
The press release goes on to claim that Ecology blames nitrates in groundwater on CAFOs:
This new permit ignores Ecology’s own determination that confirms nitrate loading due to over-application of manure from CAFOs “contributes significantly to groundwater nitrate contamination.”
The comment referenced from the lengthy May 2016 study called “Nitrate Prioritization Process” is removed from context and demonstrates how the activists distort the facts. Here is the context of the quotation:
Nitrogen sources that can end up contributing to nitrate concentrations in groundwater include manure, chemical fertilizers, on-site sewage systems, land application of biosolids, and land application of food processing waste. Nitrogen sources, especially agricultural use of fertilizers, increased livestock densities and growth in human population, have increased for decades, leaving a legacy of nitrate in groundwater.
Nitrate loading from irrigated agriculture using chemical fertilizer and manure from confined animal operations contributes significantly to groundwater nitrate contamination. One recent USGS report on nitrates in private wells in glacial settings across the U.S. states: “A source variable such as the rate of nitrogen applied to farms was useful in predicting regional nitrate concentration” (Warner, 2010).
As the report points out, there are many causes of nitrates in groundwater, including some natural causes. It is indisputable that most areas in the nation with high nitrates in groundwater are in traditional farming areas. Putting more fertilizer on a field than a growing crop can take up can cause the remaining nitrates to seep into groundwater. Which is why farm regulations, such as the Dairy Nutrient Management Act specifically address this concern. What is seldom if ever mentioned in these dishonest attacks on farming is that farming has changed, farmers are continually improving their environmental practices through regulations and pro-active approaches. All the areas identified in the Ecology report showing high nitrates are areas of heavy agriculture and have been for many years. Nitrates in soil and groundwater remain for a long time and nitrate levels have been elevated in about 30% of wells in farm country for over forty years. To place the blame for historical practices that have been and are changing is dishonest and unfair. To misquote the Ecology report which accurately points out the multiple causes and use that quote to accuse dairy farms exclusively is inaccurate and dishonest.
In Yakima, dairy farmers were required to significantly reduce nutrient application to fields and soil test show reduced nitrates in soil. However, groundwater tests continue to show high nitrates. Other areas where there is no dairy farming also show high nitrates. Why? Because past farming practices on land used for sugar beets and potatoes used far more chemical fertilizers than the crops could take up, resulting in excess nitrates in the soil and groundwater. To blame this on dairy farms and current farm practices is simply not accurate.
6. Does a state discharge permit fail to protect citizens by preventing lawsuits?
The press release states: Instead of issuing one permit that prevents discharges of pollution to surface and groundwater in accordance with federal law, Ecology adopted industrial ag’s unsuccessful legislative attempt to require a state-only permit that authorizes groundwater discharges. This regulatory regime blocks transparency and prevents citizens from protecting their right to clean water.
The activists, led by the lawyers with a history of suing dairy farms, are upset that the Department of Ecology provided a state discharge permit that protects permit holders against third-party lawsuits. If you are curious why lawyers from Eugene, Oregon are in Washington fighting so hard against this permit, this issue will provide a clue. When an industrial facility or a municipal water treatment plant is issued a discharge permit by the state, this permit puts the responsibility on the state to enforce the laws and regulations. In the same way, when your city puts up a stop light, it is up to the police to enforce the laws on running red lights. Citizen enforcement of traffic laws and water treatment laws is not appropriate. That’s not the way the lawyers suing farmers want it. They want the right to sue farmers even though that right does not apply to any other state permit holder. Why are Oregon lawyers suing Washington farmers and not Idaho or Oregon dairy farmers? Is it because we have bad farmers here and good farmers there? No, it is because the law of those states provides for government enforcement, not citizen enforcement. What is actually behind all the complaints against the CAFO permit is exposed here: it is about money. The money that can be extracted by threatening lawsuits or successfully suing farmers.
6. Do manure lagoons pollute to groundwater?
The anti-farm activists claim: Ecology has previously acknowledged that all CAFOs with manure lagoons discharge to groundwater.
Charlie Tebbutt, the former Western Environmental Law Center attorney, now in private practice in Eugene, Oregon stated: “Even after proving in a court of law that lagoons built to the standards allowed by Ecology in this permit leak millions of gallons of manure water each year into the groundwater, Ecology has chosen to allow industrial dairies to continue polluting tens of thousands of people’s drinking water. This is both inexcusable and shameful.”
It is true in the early drafts of the CAFO permit, Ecology took the position that all manure lagoons pollute and to a limited degree they still do. However, this position was shown to be contrary to best available science. Whether or not a manure lagoon leaks and how much depends on a number of factors. What is very clear is that manure lagoons lined according to the standards provided by the National Resources Conservation Service, the national experts on these issues with the US Department of Agriculture, are effective in preventing any significant leakage. Another fact, never acknowledged by the anti-farm activists, is that soil testing beneath lagoons has demonstrated that, depending on soil conditions, the small amount that leaks does not pollute because of the biological process called denitrification. A detailed explanation of this can be found here.
Contrary to the statements by these activists, manure lagoons are recognized by environmental experts as an essential and beneficial element in protecting water. They store the nutrients during the wet seasons and non-growing seasons so that the fertilizer can be applied to minimize runoff and when the growing plants can absorb the nutrients.
Attorney Tebbutt asserts that one judge’s decision constitutes irrefutable proof. A review of outrageous court decisions demonstrates that a judge’s decision alone does not always constitute proof or even good judgment. The vast majority of Americans appreciate the dairy products produced, the quality and safety of home-grown products and the way in which farmers have improved farming practices to be sustainable and responsible stewards of the environment.
7. Does the public support more regulations that will harm farmers without addressing real water quality problems?
Bruce Speight, director of Environment Washington is quoted in the press release as saying:
“More than 4,400 of the 4,600 public comments submitted to Ecology called on the agency and Gov. Inslee to require groundwater monitoring and clear and enforceable limits on nitrate pollution. This solution-oriented approach would identify contamination and reduce the risk of toxic nitrates in drinking water. Despite overwhelming public support for these recommendations, Ecology disregarded them and the critical public health protections they would provide.”
He fails to mention that almost all of the 4000 comments referenced from supporters of these anti-farm groups were form letters supporting “solutions” they knew little if anything about. Not so for the comments submitted by those expressing concern over unneeded and burdensome regulations. There is not overwhelming public support for regulations that will force farmers out of business but not improve the environment. That was made clear in the public opinion polling done by these groups as part of the “What’s Upstream” campaign. Their own voter polling showed that of all the concerns about the environment listed, farming’s impact on the environment was rated the lowest. Further, it showed that farmers and ranchers are held in higher esteem than any other group or individual listed including President Obama, Governor Inslee or the native American tribes.
Their frequent complaints about the powerful ag lobby are interesting in the light of these anti-farm activists’ success in the 2016 legislative session to defeat a widely supported bill that would have provided the third party lawsuit protections for permit holders that this new permit provides.
Will Environmentalists Help Save Family Farms?
This document provides scientific and other references in support of the statements and claims made about farmer environmental stewardship. The numbered items are statements made in the guest editorial submitted to Crosscut with items below providing references, substantiation or explanation.
1. Anti-farm activists are pressuring the Department to add huge new regulatory burdens on farmers, such as demanding synthetic manure lagoon liners.
http://www.westernlaw.org/article/ecologys-draft-cafo-water-quality-permit-sacrifices-public-health-drinking-water-shellfish-b3. Farmers are already heavily regulated and those regulations are working to protect water.
For a listing of just SOME of the many federal, state and local regulations affecting farmers:
When it comes to lax enforcement and farmer’s opposition to enforcement of the dairy regulations, the facts and history clearly refute that claim.
Regarding lax enforcement by the Department of Agriculture:
In the ten years from 2005 to 2015, there were a total of 2953 inspections including 1506 inspections of the 172 dairies in the Northwest Region which includes Whatcom County.
22% of those inspections resulted in some form of compliance action.
In that ten year period there were 94 documented discharges to surface water with 24 penalties issued and 51 notices.
The majority of compliance actions involved Risky Management Practices with 520 warnings and 97 notices issued.
In 2013 and 2014 there 29 enforcement actions related to discharges, including 11 notices of penalty. Each notice of penalty carries with it the information that pollution will result in the farm needing to secure a pollution permit under federal CAFO rules. Twenty percent of these were related to equipment failures, 28% lagoon issues and 48% related to field applications.
In 2013 to 2014 there were 149 additional enforcement actions taken with 46% related to record keeping problems, 23% lagoon issues and 24% field conditions.4. Dairy farms used to be a major polluter of ground and surface water. But the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act changed that, and water quality testing in Western Washington proves it.
Details on the Washington State Dairy Nutrient Management Regulations including enforcement
August 2016 information from Washington State Department of Agriculture on compliance with nitrate contamination on dairy cropland included in this video:
Proof of water monitoring showing multiple sources: Bacteria Contamination in Whatcom County video: https://vimeo.com/1695643127. If farm opponents succeed in forcing regulations that will cost most of our dairy farms, we will all be the losers.
In spring of 2015, Whatcom Family Farmers conducted an online survey of state dairy farmers. A high percentage participated. The farmers were asked if they would be able to continue farming at various levels of costs associated with new regulations. The costs were $250 per cow, $500 per cow, $750 per cow and $1000 per cow. They reported approximately 20% would be forced to quit or leave the state at the lowest level and nearly 100% reported they would be forced out at the highest level. Industry estimates of the cost of the CAFO permit as drafted would be about $220 per cow–with an estimated loss of about 20% of our farmers. Farm opponents pushing additional regulations such as synthetic lined lagoons would raise those costs to about $800 per cow. This would result in the loss of the majority of our farms.
While the current draft exempts farms under 200 cows, this means farms with 201 cows will be forced to pay these costs. In Western Washington, dairy farms tend to be fairly small with an average herd size of 450 cows and with many farms in the 200-400 cow range. There is no question that the huge cost burdens the farm opponents are seeking would devastate our farms and accelerate the conversion to the most cost efficient larger farms.9. That’s why the Action Agenda of the Puget Sound Partnership stresses keeping farmers viable and farmland in production
Information on the Puget Sound Plan including Action Agenda documents:
Specific section of Action Agenda referencing preservation of farming and farmland:
http://www.savefamilyfarming.org/psp-action-agenda.html2. Farmers don’t oppose regulations and fought for funding to continue dairy inspections in 2002 after Ecology cut the program from its budget.
Regarding the dairy industry going to the legislature to oppose regulation and enforcement, the facts do not support the accusation that farmers oppose regulations and fought to defund enforcement. According to then Democratic Representative Kelli Linville from the 42nd District (Whatcom County) the story is different. Linville, the current Mayor of Bellingham, told Whatcom Family Farmers that Ecology was initially charged with enforcing the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act but it was a low priority for them. In establishing this act, Linville worked with farmers. “They knew they had to do something, we set a zero discharge standard with Ecology doing the inspections designated by the EPA. The majority of farmers wanted to do the right thing,” Linville said. In 2002 facing budget cuts in all departments, the Department of Ecology identified the inspection program enforcing the Dairy Nutrient Management Act as one they could cut. The dairy industry objected and working with Representative Linville, worked to ensure inspections would continue through the Department of Agriculture. Even this involved Ecology as they were charged with continuing to do water quality testing in farming areas to help independently verify the effectiveness of the regulations.
It is clear from the record the dairy industry as a whole supported the regulations and worked to ensure that funding was available to continue the inspection program. Linville stated in a phone interview about this on November 17, “Never, ever was dairy opposed to being held accountable.”
Virginia Prest, head of the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Dairy Nutrient Management Program fully supported Linville’s version of these events and when asked if farmers opposed the regulations or the enforcement she said on November 17 in a phone interview, “Absolutely not true!” She went much further than supporting this version of events, when she pointed out:
“In 2009 the industry said we need to do a better job on record keeping and they went to the legislature and asked them to update RCW 90.64 to require farmers to keep records. In 2010 they went back and asked that a penalty for record keeping be added.”
That change occurred and Prest credits the farmers for this increase in regulatory scrutiny.5. Well documented science shows that when lagoons are built to the standards of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), they protect water.
Manure lagoon leakage video: https://vimeo.com/1532812786. Current monitoring yields the information needed to protect groundwater.
Currently soil tests are used to determine if nutrient application is proper to protect groundwater. See WSDA data on dairy cropland testing referenced in item 4.8. State farmers have helped create over 800 miles of stream buffers, planting in Whatcom County alone over one million stream-side trees and shrubs.
Overview of farmers and buffers:
Washington State Conservation Commission report on statewide buffers:
Millionth tree planting in Whatcom County:
MEDIA FACT CHECK
Our news media generally do an excellent job of keeping us informed. But they don’t always get the facts right or the story straight.
This section will be used to help set the record straight if information is being publicly distributed that isn’t accurate.
DAIRY FARMERS AND WATER QUALITY FACT CHECK
Several stories in the media over the past year have pointed the finger at Whatcom family dairy farmers for water pollution and the closure of the Lummi shellfish beds.
KING5 “SUPERBUG” STORY WRONGLY RAISES CONCERN ABOUT DAIRY
On May 12 KING5 in Seattle aired a Health Link news segment reporting on a new study out of Britain that suggests that superbugs may cause up to 10 million deaths by 2050. This same report was the subject of a cover news story in the Economist, a respected British news magazine with wide readership in the US.
The contrast between KING5’s treatment and the Economist reporting illustrates the difference between responsible and irresponsible journalism.
The story presented by Lori Matsukawa, longtime and respected anchor, began with video of milking cows and the message: “At a typical dairy farm, cows are delivering much more than cream and butter. Information is being milked from them about what role antibiotics play in the country’s meat supply.”
Nowhere in the Lord O’Neill report about superbugs is dairy or dairy products ever mentioned. For good reason. One issue of concern in the report, a relatively minor one given the multiple causes of disease resistant bacteria, is the use of antibiotics to help meat animals grow. This includes beef, pigs, chicken and other animals grown for meat. Dairy cows are not given antibiotics for any purpose other than helping them recover from illness, same as humans. If they are administered antibiotics they are removed from the herd and their milk does not get shipped. Every shipment of milk, repeat, every shipment, is tested for the presence of antibiotics and if there is even a miniscule amount detected, the entire shipment is rejected. That’s the law. That’s why farmers are very, very careful to make certain milk from dairy cows given antibiotics to get them healthy again, doesn’t get into the milk supply.
We understand journalists are busy. No doubt some production staff saw a story about superbugs and the reference to milk and quickly pulled some video from their available footage showing cows being milked. We don’t know why the reference to information coming from milk was part of the story because milk has nothing to do with superbugs or disease resistant bacteria. But what we do know is that this carelessness or irresponsibility contributes to unwarranted fears. That’s why journalists and news anchors who presents these stories need to take their responsibilities very seriously.
We believe the issue of the use of antibiotics and the growing threat of disease-resistant bacteria is a very important one and we are grateful for the in-depth and responsible reporting of the Economist. We would ask that KING5 air and publish a clarification, noting that no antibiotics or other harmful substances are allowed in our milk supply and these protections are very, very carefully monitored.
FARMERS AND FECAL COLIFORM–WHAT THE WATER STUDIES SHOW
A number of media reports accuse Whatcom dairy farmers of being the primary contributors to fecal coliform contamination resulting in the closure of the Lummi shellfish beds. These reports tend to use data and conclusions from twenty years ago. Today, those accusations are contradicted by many water quality studies including this one from fall, 2015 in the Fishtrap Creek watershed. Note how water quality flowing through dairy country north of the city of Lynden deteriorates as it enters the urban area. This is consistent with the report in 2009 to the Whatcom County Department of Public Works that said source control efforts for fecal coliform needed to focus on urban stormwater runoff.