A few local anti-dairy activists and their Oregon attorney are working to convince the Yakima community that there is a public health crisis because of nitrate in drinking water. They present this as an “environmental justice” issue, and claim that dairy farms are the culprit. They rely on news media repeating their accusations, such as in KIMA TV’s two reports in late November and early December.
But what is the truth? Is there a crisis? Is the public health at risk, and are dairy farms to blame?
The short answer is no, there is no public health crisis. And dairy farms can contribute nitrate but there are a number of other, potentially more significant, causes.
Most areas around the state and nation where farming has been done for generations show nitrate levels above the current EPA limit. Nitrate is naturally occurring and studies show soil in this area has high levels of natural nitrate. Septic systems are known to contribute to nitrate in groundwater, particularly when concentrated as they are near Outlook. Most nitrate in farming areas has been there for 30 to 50 years and EPA’s 2013 report shows that most nitrate in Yakima pre-dates current dairy operations. Before it nitrate was understood to be a problem, farmers were told to apply maximum fertilizer and heavy irrigation which has contributed significantly to legacy nitrate in water in our state and nation. 24% of wells in farming areas like Yakima across the nation have nitrate above the EPA limit. Yakima has 12% to 15% above the limit, so claims of Yakima being unique or having a significant problem are simply not true.
Those seeking to create a climate of crisis state that nitrate in groundwater is a serious and immediate public health risk, affecting minority groups primarily. While EPA maintains the limit based on a proven faulty 1940s study, even EPA scientists have shown that claims of health risks are not supported by the facts. Even the infant disease often cited as a primary risk has been shown to be caused by internal factors.
The real question comes down to who is to be believed? The Oregon attorney is suing a number of dairy farms in our state and has already earned very substantial legal fees through settlements. We have lost family dairy farms through these lawsuits. He benefits by creating a climate of crisis. Anti-dairy activists have also benefited financially by securing grants from legal settlements by attorneys claiming environmental harm. It’s an important issue and we strongly encourage reporters, government officials and the public to investigate the claims and facts.
Here is our current understanding of the facts about nitrate, dairy farms and health risks.SFF Nitrate Facts 2019