SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Public interest groups sent letters Thursday telling five big Yakima Valley farms that a lawsuit would be filed unless they stop contaminating groundwater with runoff from their operations.
The move came after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a long-awaited study last month that found several dairies and farms in the valley were the likely sources of nitrates contaminating private wells.
The report said it could take years to reduce nitrate levels in the wells used by 24,000 people for drinking water.
"The prospect of allowing this massive pollution to continue unchecked is completely unacceptable," said Helen Reddout of the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment. "While we are relieved EPA has finally taken notice of the problem, their conclusions fail to recognize the urgency of this situation."
Public Justice, which represents the association and the Center for Food Safety, sent the intent-to-sue letters, saying the lawsuit could be filed in 90 days.
The groups said letters were sent to Liberty Dairy and Bosma Dairy, both of Zillah; Cow Palace Dairy of Granger; Haak and Son Dairy of Sunnyside; and DeRuyter and Son Dairy of Outlook.
Messages left at the dairies seeking comment were not immediately returned.
The EPA report was limited and doesn't prove a larger trend of nitrate contamination across the entire 576-square mile area southeast of Yakima. The report said action is needed, and it could take years to reduce nitrate levels in drinking water wells to safe levels.
The report singled out dairies, including several with lagoons estimated to have leaked millions of gallons of manure into the ground each year. But the report did not blame the region's entire nitrate problem on the dairies.
The EPA is now negotiating an agreement with dairy owners on ways to stop the contamination and to drill monitoring wells. The agency does not plan to levy any fines.
The EPA began its study after a 2008 Yakima Herald-Republic series detailing how as many as one in five of the wells in the area were contaminated by nitrates.
Excessive exposure to nitrates can harm infants and people with compromised immune systems. Nitrates can also indicate the presence of other contaminants such as bacteria and pesticides.
The public interest groups contend the drinking water wells are also contaminated with bovine antibiotics and other pollutants.
"EPA's findings are one more nail in the coffin of factory farms," said Elisabeth Holmes of the Center for Food Safety.