Why Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and Western Environmental Law Center Are Wrong About Washington’s Dairy Farms

Actions against dairy farms violate their environmental mission

Using numerous false accusations, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and Western Environmental Law Center have been working to build a case against dairy farmers in Washington State. They seek to impose massive new regulations that would do essentially nothing to improve the environment but would cost our state the vast majority of our family dairy farms. We would all be the losers as farms provide numerous environmental benefits and much of the small amount of remaining farmland in the Puget Sound region in particular would be suburbanized.

We are providing this detailed rebuttal to their false accusations because we want those concerned about the environment and generally supportive of the mission of these organizations to understand the harm being done to our environmental future.



Note: this is the aquifer which the attorney for Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and Western Environmental Law Center declared to a news reporter was “closed.”

Nitrate levels in northern Whatcom County wells are declining. The map below shows the location of test wells. Most of the decline in an area of the most intensive dairy farming in the state of Washington.

The basis of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance’s case against dairy farms is the great harm they are causing to drinking water. Yet nitrate in drinking water is a legacy issue and this information shows that not only are dairies not a major source of contamination, but the strict laws combined with farmer stewardship are helping clean the water from previous farming practices.



The USGS provides detailed information on wells in the US that have nitrate above the EPA limit of 10 parts per million. They report 24% of wells in areas of intensive farming in the past with the right soil conditions have groundwater above the limit.

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and Western Environmental Law Center want everyone to believe that the nitrate in groundwater is caused by dairy farms. Even in Southeast Washington, the areas with highest levels of nitrate in groundwater have few if any dairy farms. The accusation is simply wrong.

This website provides information on location of wells likely to have nitrate in groundwater above the EPA limit:
It shows that 24% of wells have nitrate above the EPA limit. The accompanying map shows that vulnerability is based on nitrogen input combined with soil conditions. The map of Southeast
Washington demonstrates that high nitrate in this area is common in farming areas regardless of the presence of dairy farms.

The EPA limit of 10 parts per million was set in the 1960s based on a 1940s study that linked “blue baby syndrome” to very high levels of nitrate in drinking water. Numerous studies since then have shown that study to be wrong. The infant disease is caused by internal production of nitrite according to the latest (2014) study. The apparent unwillingness of EPA to reevaluate this limit based on current and best science means that taxpayers continue to pay billions of dollars for nitrate in groundwater. The primary cause of nitrate in groundwater, beyond natural contributions, is the outdated farming practices of over application of nutrients combined with heavy rain or irrigation in susceptible soil conditions.



Statements about the public health risk by activists are often extreme such as made by Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and the Western Environmental Law Center. These were published on the What’s Upstream website which states nitrates are: “acute contaminants that produce immediate (within hours or days) health effects upon exposure.” This is clearly intended to frighten the uninformed but when the facts about health risks are known, these statements seriously diminish the credibility of those making those claims.

A major concern raised is the supposed link between nitrate levels in groundwater and infant methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome” The suggestion was that this risk was considerable even at or near the EPA level of 10 parts per million. Farmers understand that the EPA Maximum Contamination Level or MCL on nitrate continues in effect. But there is clear and compelling evidence that the current limit, set by a now discredited science study of 1945, is not supported by the preponderance of more current studies.

Federal agencies, with the exception being the EPA, are making it clear that science studies relating to the role of nitrate in human health are pointing away from the outdated reports. The Public Health statement of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) states:

Most people are not exposed to levels of nitrate and/or nitrite that would cause adverse health effects. Young infants (<6 months of age) appeared to be particularly sensitive to the effects of nitrite on hemoglobin after consuming formula prepared with drinking water that contained nitrate at levels higher than recommended limits; some of these infants died. The cause of methemoglobinemia (a change to hemoglobin that decreases the ability to transport oxygen to tissues) in many of these infants may have been gastroenteritis from bacteria or viruses in the drinking water or from other sources not related to nitrate.”

In 2013 Dr. Bruce Macler from EPA Region 9 presented a summary of studies of health risks from nitrate in drinking water. After noting the EPA limit was set based on the 1940s study, Dr. Macler stated: “Clinical studies of nitrate exposure alone showed little or no methemoglobinemia.” Perhaps most interesting is Dr. Macler’s review of a study of methemoglobinemia in California completed in 2000. He notes that 42 cases in California over 13 years were studied. “None specifically associated with nitrates.” “Only four of the 42 cases were in areas where there were wells.”

The error made by the original study in 1945 by Hunter Comly that linked methemoglobinemia to nitrate in drinking water is now quite well understood and is widely reported in the literature. The researcher only considered the high levels of nitrate in the drinking water which was also contaminated by bacteria. Subsequent studies compounded the error by failing to consider the role of bacteria, genetics and other factors. Numerous studies since then have pointed out that error, which is succinctly summarized here:

Methaemoglobinaemia is a side-effect of gastroenteritis and is not caused by nitrate but by nitric oxide, which is produced in a defensive reaction stimulated by gastroenteritis. The latter may be caused by a bacterium or a virus. The association of methaemoglobinaemia with nitrate may have arisen because early cases of the condition were often associated with wells polluted with bacteria, and the same pollution increased the nitrate concentration.”

An article from Environmental Health Perspectives by Mary H. Ward, et al., from 2005 and published on the NIH website provides evidence that factors other than nitrate contribute to methemoglobinemia.

Methemoglobinemia in infants fed formula made with well water with high nitrate levels was first reported in 1945 by Comly (1945). The regulatory level for nitrate in drinking-water supplies was determined after a survey of infant methemoglobinemia case reports in the United States indicated that no cases were observed at drinking-water nitrate levels < 10 mg/L nitrate-N (Walton 1951). Because an estimated 22% of domestic wells in agricultural regions of the United States exceed the nitrate MCL (U.S. Geological Survey, unpublished data), it is likely that significant numbers of infants are given water containing > 10 mg/L nitrate-N. Nevertheless, few cases of methemoglobinemia have been reported since the MCL was promulgated.

The authors point out that numerous recent studies show that exposure to nitrate alone does not result in the infant disease: “Recently, the role of nitrate exposure alone in causing methemoglobinemia has been questioned (Avery 1999; Fewtrell 2004; Hanukoglu and Danon 1996).” They concluded:

Clearly, we need to better understand the interaction of factors that lead to methemoglobinemia to assess the relative importance of each factor and to identify the conditions under which exposure to nitrate in drinking water poses a risk of methemoglobinemia.

The need to better understand the factors contributing to methemoglobinemia was answered by a 2014 medical report published on the National Institutes of Health Website called Reexamining the Risks of Drinking-Water Nitrates on Public Health authored by Alyce M. Richard, MD, James H. Diaz, MD, DrPH, and Alan David Kaye, MD, PhD. Dr. Richard is now with Harvard Medical School. The report examines in-depth the medical issues surrounding this disease and concludes:

Because research refutes exogenous nitrate-to-nitrite sources as causes of IM and supports endogenous nitrite production secondary to genetic abnormalities or nitric oxide generation in an inflamed infant gut as causative mechanisms for IM, perhaps the current MCL for nitrate in drinking water of 10 mg/L (or 10 ppm) should be revisited.

Those promoting the link between nitrate in drinking water and blue baby syndrome frequently refer to Eastern European countries that have had much higher levels of incidence of this disease than Western European nations or the US. The paper referred to above by Ward et. al., states “in Romania, 20% of 2,000 wells had nitrate levels > 23 mg/L as nitrate-N (Jedrychowski et al. 1997). Studies from other countries, including China, Botswana, Turkey, Senegal, and Mexico, report private well water levels that exceed the WHO guideline, in some instances at levels > 68 mg/L nitrate-N (WHO 2004a).”

Another researcher from the UK, Lorna Fewtrell reported: “In 1985, WHO reported that > 1,300 cases of methemoglobinemia (with 21 fatalities) occurred in Hungary over a 5-year period. Indeed, up until the late 1980s methemoglobinemia was a serious problem in Hungary (Hill 1999). Although there are reports of high nitrate concentrations in drinking water (i.e., > 50 mg/L nitrate) from around the world (Hoering and Chapman 2004), these are rarely paralleled by reports of methemoglobinemia. Where illness has been reported, many of the cases predate the early 1990s, and Hanukoglu and Danon (1996) have proposed that the apparent decline in the incidence of methemoglobinemia is suggestive of an infectious etiology.”

Turning from the infant disease to cancer, the government official also referenced the Iowa study published in the 2001 issue of Epidemiology which concludes that low levels of nitrate in drinking water are associated with increased incidence of some forms of cancer. This study generated the expected news headlines and has been used extensively by activists to ramp up concerns about nitrate and cancer. The study was done on the basis of a survey mailed to Iowa residents. The authors note: “There are several important limitations to our exposure assessment that require comment.” Those limitations provide adequate reason why the study results are inconsistent with and not supported by a number of other studies that show no link to low levels of nitrate in drinking water and cancer. Dr. Macler, the EPA Region 9 scientist referenced above, also noted in his presentation that since 2002 the EPA has determined that nitrate was not a carcinogen. This was after the Iowa study was published. Dr. Macler’s 2013 presentation offered this conclusion: “Net effect = zero.” This was because of the admitted weakness of the study and the numerous other studies that show no link.

One of the most comprehensive analyses of the health impact of nitrate in drinking water was published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2008:

About 50 epidemiological studies have been made since 1973 testing the link between nitrate and stomach cancer incidence and mortality in humans, including Forman et al. (1985) and National Academy of Sciences (1981). The Chief Medical Officer in Britain (Acheson, 1985), the Scientific Committee for Food in Europe (European Union, 1995), and the Subcommittee on Nitrate and Nitrite in Drinking Water in the USA (NRC,1995) all concluded that no convincing link between nitrate and stomach cancer incidence and mortality had been established…Based on the above findings showing no clear association between nitrate in drinking water and the two main health issues with which it has been linked , some scientists suggest that there is now sufficient evidence for increasing the permitted concentration of nitrate in drinking water without increasing risks to human health (L’hirondel et al., 2006; Addiscott, 2005).”

This comports with the statement by the ATSDR:

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined that there is inadequate evidence for the carcinogenicity of nitrate in food or drinking water and limited evidence for the carcinogenicity of nitrite in food (based on association with increased incidence of stomach cancer).

In a concluding slide looking at various studies that purported to link nitrate to cancer, Dr. Macler concluded: “No smoking gun.” His presentation along with most of these reports can be found on the Save Family Farming website at: https://www.savefamilyfarming.org/nitrates-and-human-health.html

Is nitrate good for you or bad for you? Two federal agencies have very different answers. The EPA says even a small amount of nitrate in groundwater represents a serious enough health risk to justify billions of dollars of treatment and control. The National Institutes of Health, on the other hand, recommends we eat vegetables high in nitrate – 2500 times the EPA limit! – to improve heart health.  Shouldn’t these agencies get together and talk about this?

Instead of representing a serious health risks, most now agree that nitrate is beneficial.At a very minimum the health risks previously associated with nitrate in drinking water, particularly at the very low levels set by the EPA, are being seriously questioned if not moving toward a strong consensus of little to no risk. But there is another side to the story: the positive benefits of nitrate in the diet.

In the University of Nebraska-Lincoln study mentioned above, the authors make note of the potential positive benefits: “On one hand there is evidence that shows there is no clear association between nitrate in drinking water and the two main health issues with which it has been linked, and there is even evidence emerging of a possible benefit of nitrate in cardiovascular health.”

The DASH diet, based on research from the National Institutes of Health, is a good example as it promotes eating vegetables known to be high in nitrate such as beets, spinach and celery. For example, one serving of spinach contains about 2500 times the 10 parts per million in water that the EPA set as the MCL. The DASH diet website states:

“The healthy DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet plan was developed to lower blood pressure without medication in research sponsored by the US National Institutes of Health. The first DASH diet research showed that it could lower blood pressure as well as the first line blood pressure medications, even with a sodium intake of 3300 mg/day!  Since then, numerous studies have shown that the DASH diet reduces the risk of many diseases, including some kinds of cancer, stroke, heart disease, heart failure, kidney stones, and diabetes. It has been proven to be an effective way to lose weight and become healthier at the same time. It is full of fabulous, delicious, real foods. All of these benefits led to the #1 diet ranking by US News & World Report in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.”

Scientific evidence for the health benefits of nitrate in the diet have been established for some time as this 2009 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, shows: “As such, the dietary provision of nitrates and nitrites from vegetables and fruit may contribute to the blood pressure–lowering effects of the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.”




Puget Soundkeeper Alliance (PSA) and Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) are leading the effort to force the Department of Ecology to impose regulations on Washington dairy farms. The demanded regulations are far and above any other dairy regulations across the nation and would result in the loss of vast majority of our family dairy farms. These regulations would cost the average dairy farm of about 600 cows about $750,000 in front end costs and substantially increase their annual operating costs. Nearly three quarters of the remaining 375 dairy farms in the state would go out of business according to a survey of farms in 2015. Only the very largest farms milking herds of several thousand cows could possibly survive the additional costs.

But, would these regulations and losing all our smaller and mid-sized dairy farms help the environment? Most specifically, would it improve water quality and public health? Puget Soundkeeper and Western Environmental Law Center’s litigation against dairy farms is based on the claim that nitrate contamination allegedly coming from dairy farms causes death and disease to infants and adults. If this were credible, the prescriptions they offer that would end dairy farming in our communities and state would be justified. But the claims are wrong and the accusations false. Beyond the false health risk claims, the attorneys for Puget Soundkeeper, Western Environmental Law Center, RE Sources and others make outlandish statements and false accusations about dairy pollution.

In the Pollution Control Hearings Board hearing late May and June, Mr Tebbutt speaking on behalf of PSA, WELC and the others stated: “Ecology has fiddled while Washington burns with manure contamination.” This document will show the extreme false nature of this accusation. This is reminiscent of a similar comment made by this attorney in court where he stated, “…this industry is killing this country in many different ways.” Mr. Tebbutt also told a Seattle TV reporter outside the hearing that the Sumas Abbotsford aquifer was “closed.” This is another extreme and false statement that is completely contrary to documented improvement in water quality in this aquifer.

This paper addresses the key issues and shows that dairy pollution accusations are not supported by the facts. The foundational claim, that the alleged pollution poses a very significant threat to public health, is also thoroughly refuted by current science. So while PSA and WELC seek to rid our state of “country killing” dairy farmers, the words and actions of their leaders and the attorneys they hire are undermining the credibility of these groups. If their efforts succeed, they will have caused significant damage to the environmental well being of our state to say nothing of the farm families, long time employees and communities supported by these farms.

Summary of Key Points:

  1. Claims of Lagoon Contamination
  2. Claims of Other Dairy Contamination
  3. The Falsified EPA science study
  4. Judge Rice’s dairy cluster decision
  5. Demand for groundwater monitoring
  6. Claims of Significant Health Risks
  7. Impact of loss of dairy farmers and farmland


1. Claims of Lagoon contamination

PSA and WELC are demanding through legal action that the Department of Ecology require dairy farms to install double synthetic liners with leak detection in order to prevent the nitrate contamination of groundwater they claim occurs with current lagoon liners. To support this claim the activists make frequent reference to the number of cows, number of lagoons, the amount of manure produced and the amount of material they claim leak from current lagoons. PSA includes this statement on their website:

Agricultural Pollution
Our growing population has changed the way agriculture is practiced, and instead of family farms we now have large industrial agriculture operations were animals live in feedlots and manure is stored in huge lagoons. The raw manure produced at these concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, is far beyond the capacity of farmers to deal with, and much of it washes into waterways or seeps into groundwater, contaminating waterways with nitrates and fecal coliform bacteria.
These claims are absolutely false and given what is clearly established about lagoons and the protection they offer, it appears that the continuing demand for the double synthetic liners with leak detection is not aimed at improving water quality but instead aimed at eliminating dairy farms from the state of Washington.

The facts:

Current lagoons built to Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the USDA are protective of water according to the NRCS, the Department of Ecology, the Washington State Department of Agriculture. The activists’ claims of water pollution through lagoons rejects the current and accepted science and the conclusions of these agencies charged with protecting water.

Numerous studies, including an extensive study of large dairy farm operations in California by the University of California, Davis, demonstrate that nitrate contamination from lagoons is minimal. These are confirmed by soil studies completed under decommissioned lagoons. The video prepared by Save Family Farming shows why.

Current dairy regulations specify no discharge. Washington state has some of the most stringent dairy regulations in the nation. The 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act specifies “zero discharge” either to surface or groundwater. Inspections of manure lagoons on a regular basis is a requirement of this law. If a dairy farm of over 200 cows does experience a discharge through accident or negligence, that farm is required to get a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permit issued by the Department of Ecology. This permit includes more requirements including a lagoon assessment to ensure it is built to NRCS standards and is performing in a way that protects water. If the state determines that a lagoon is discharging and contaminating water, it will require the farm to secure a permit and the farm will have to take action as specified in the permit.

Lagoons are an essential part of manure management and therefore of environmental protection. Lagoons replaced year-round application of manure on farm fields in the 1970s. This was when it was determined that previous nutrient application practices are a major reason why groundwater in farm country showed nitrate levels above the EPA limit. Lagoons allow farmers to store the manure during the rainy seasons and winter months so the valuable nutrients can be applied only when the crops can take in the needed nutrients. All of this is rigidly controlled by the Dairy Nutrient Management Act with each farm required to develop field-by-field nutrient budgets.

2. Claims of Other Dairy Contamination

PSA and WELC are seeking to add additional very expensive requirements to the current CAFO permit. These include containment under animal pens, inspection of underground manure conveyances, much expanded soil testing, surface water testing, and groundwater monitoring. Testimony from the Department of Ecology staff during the May-June Pollution Control Hearings Board hearing brought by PSA and others made clear that these are not significant sources of pollution. Expert testimony verified that position. All experts agree that the greatest risk for nitrate contamination from dairy farm operations is field application of nutrients. The existing Dairy Nutrient Management Act and the Manure Pollution Prevention Plan incorporated into Ecology’s CAFO permit provide strict regulations relating to field application along with inspections and penalties for violations.

There can be little doubt that these regulations are succeeding. Ecology has monitored groundwater in wells in Whatcom County for many years. This is an area of numerous dairy farms located in a relatively restricted area. The most recent studies, as reported in an Ecology report of October 2016 showed that wells nearest dairy farms are mostly decreasing in nitrate levels. Given that nitrate in groundwater is related to legacy farming practices and a Canadian study showed that it takes thirty to fifty years of improved farming practices to reduce this legacy nitrate, the reduced levels demonstrate environmental actions are working. Regulations along with pro-active efforts on the part of most farmers are reducing impacts and actually helping the recovery from past mistakes. Appendix A provides a chart showing declining levels of nitrate and a map showing the location of tested wells.

3. False Claims Based on the EPA 2013 Yakima Report

In 2008 the Yakima Herald ran an in-depth series that purported to show the large dairy farms in the area were causing harm to public health through nitrate contamination. The EPA, responding to what they considered community concern, conducted a study which they concluded showed that dairies were major contributors of nitrate contamination. PSA and WELC rely heavily on this report as a basis for their claims against farmers including in the May-June PCHB hearing on the CAFO permit.

But the report was falsified; that is, intentionally designed to produce the results the EPA Region 10 leaders expected to see. That is not merely farmers’ opinion. A number of legitimate scientists from major academic institutions, professional organizations and government agencies reviewed the report and without exception declared in one way or another the results claimed by the EPA were not justified. The science reviewers identified numerous intentional or unintentional errors and lapses in the data collection and results reported. One example: soil testing was conducted by choosing fields where manure nutrients had recently been applied, then sampling to one inch with a spoon and declaring that the nutrients in those samples demonstrated widespread contamination. Farmers note that EPA Region 10 at this time was led by an Administrator who also approved the illegal spending of over $500,000 of taxpayer funds to lobby for anti-farm legislation and publish false accusations against farmers. PSA and WELC were sponsors of this widely discredited “What’s Upstream” campaign that resulted in one third of the members of Congress complaining to then EPA Director McCarthy who said the agency was “distressed” by the campaign.

4. False Claims Based on the Federal Court’s Dairy Cluster Decision

With the falsified EPA science study as a basis, the attorney for PSA and WELC filed suit in federal court against four large dairies in the lower Yakima Valley. Called the “Cow Palace” case for one of the farms involved, this lawsuit used the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act (RCRA) as a basis to sue dairy farms. While PSA and WELC were not the appellants in this case, the claims made by PSA and WELC in the PCHB hearings demonstrated the great weight these groups place on the decision of this court.

The court ruled that these dairy farms through overapplication of nutrients and through seepage from their lagoons were disposing of manure as “waste.” The court’s decision, should it be applied broadly, would require all farms managing manure to fall under the nation’s laws regarding municipal waste. Without question the attorney for the appellant found a federal judge, a former prosecuting attorney, amenable to his accusations. Four previous federal judges had found that the RCRA law was never intended to and does not include manure as waste. But the attorney – the same attorney hired by PSA and WELC – argued that dairy farmers “are killing this country in many ways.” Indeed, the judge determined that nutrients not taken up by plants or found under a lagoon are “waste” and also supported the plaintiff’s position on nitrate as an urgent public health issue.

This judge’s decision is clearly an outlier and not justified by the facts of the use of nutrients or health risks. One result has been an effort in Congress to clarify RCRA to eliminate its use by those seeking to destroy these “killing” farms. While PSA and WELC and their attorneys continue to use it as a powerful weapon against dairy farms, a close examination of the case and decision makes clear how far from reality this particular judge strayed.

5. Demand for Groundwater Monitoring

PSA and WELC are also demanding that the Ecology CAFO permit include groundwater monitoring. It sounds sensible as such monitoring shows nitrate levels in groundwater which, again, is the primary but dubious concern regarding health. Testimony by experts and officials from the Department of Ecology made clear why groundwater monitoring is not necessary and indeed would not be helpful if added to the permit:

  • It is a backward look. Groundwater monitoring will indeed tell how much nitrate is in the ground, but it will not tell how long it has been there or exactly where it has come from. Groundwater monitoring would show the presence of nitrate in the groundwater in Southeast Washington as the map from the USGS shows (Appendix B). This map shows, nitrate above the EPA limit is present in 24% of wells in farm country. This is due to previous farming practices which combined over-application of nitrogen from manure or commercial fertilizer combined with heavy irrigation or rainfall. Soil conditions also play a major role in nitrate contamination.


  • Fall soil monitoring is a necessary and valuable predictor of potential nitrate contamination. Testing the soil after the crops have finished growing will show if the proper amount of nutrients have been applied. The permit and the current dairy regulations require this. Specified actions are to be taken if these tests show that there is residual nitrate that has the potential to leach into groundwater.


  • Soil testing is affordable by farmers but groundwater is not. To use groundwater monitoring to determine if a particular dairy farm is contaminating water would require an extensive network of upgradient and downgradient testing wells. These are very expensive as is the continual monitoring and testing required. This requirement would mean a great many of the farmers currently under severe strain due to low milk prices would be forced out of business.


6. Claims of Significant Health Risks

Nitrate in drinking water is the fundamental issue. The activists claim that dairy farms are contributing massive amounts of nitrate to groundwater through manure storage lagoons and application of manure to fields. They claim dairy contamination poses a very significant risk to human health. This is wrong.

The EPA established a maximum of 10 parts per million of nitrate in drinking water. This was based on a 1940s study that related some cases of infant methemoglobinemia (IM) – also called “blue baby syndrome” – to newborn infants fed formula using well water high in nitrate. That study has since been fully discredited by numerous more recent studies. In Appendix C we provide extensive documentation of current science studies related to this issue. One of the most recent by eminent medical researchers concludes that given a much improved understanding of the causes, “perhaps the current MCL for nitrate in drinking water of 10 mg/L (or 10 ppm) should be revisited.”

We challenge these activists to produce science studies that refute the conclusion of all recent studies we have seen that show the causal link between nitrate in groundwater and blue baby syndrome is wrong. Since we have been publicly presenting this documentation for nearly three years, we believe PSA and WELC are choosing to ignore current science as it interferes with their fundamental claim against farmers.

Appendix C also provides detailed information on the health benefits of nitrates in diets. The DASH diet, promoted by the National Institutes of Health, is beneficial for cardiac performance because it is high in vegetables that contain about 2500 times the nitrate allowed in drinking water. We simply note the vast difference in position of these two federal agencies to point out that the claims about urgent health risks activists claim are caused by dairy pollution are not credible. Farmers fully recognize that as long as the EPA holds to the current limit, it is their obligation to do all they can to limit or eliminate nitrate contamination. The information provided above about protective measures and farmer stewardship show that while the EPA standard stands farmers will do all they can to limit or eliminate contamination.

7. Impact of loss of dairy farmers and farmland

We have lost over 85% of our dairy farms in Washington state since the early 1990s. From about 2500 family dairies, only about 375 remain today.  Global economic conditions combined with valuable but costly regulations have contributed to the consolidation of farms at an accelerating pace. Now the uncertainty posed by the litigation and activism of PSA, WELC and their anti-farm activist partners, is contributing to this accelerating loss. This loss does not just affect the multi-generation legacy of individual farms and families, or even just the communities that are supported by the jobs and income they provide. Increasingly, other high-value farms supported by dairy farms are put at risk with this effort to eliminate dairy farms.

  • Crop rotation

Many other types of farms depend on dairy farm fields for crop rotation. The vibrant potato farms in Skagit County and seed potato farms in Whatcom County would most likely not be able to continue if we were to lose more dairy crop acreage. The three to four year crop rotation needed for these and many other crops, including tulip and daffodil bulbs, would mean that the cost of these crops would rise unsustainably. About 400,000 visitors to the Skagit Valley enjoy the Tulip Festival each spring. If PSA and WELC are understood to be the cause of the loss of these farm operations, it is not likely to have a positive impact on the respect for these organizations.

  • Organic fertilizer

Our dairy cows produce lots of manure which is often cited by PSA and WELC as a very bad thing. But it is a good thing for organic farmers. Up to one half of the manure produced on Eastern Washington dairy farms is sold as organic fertilizer to the growing number of organic farmers in Eastern Washington. This high value fertilizer significantly increases their ability to grow organic crops at a cost that allows them to expand this market. If this fertilizer it is not available it will require importing organic fertilizer from Canada, Idaho, the Midwest or other areas where animal farming is healthy. Not only would their costs rise, but the carbon footprint of their organic products would increase significantly because of the need to transport these essential nutrients.

  • Worm castings

The Bio-Filtro system installed in one of the largest dairies in Eastern Washington, Royal City Dairy, is just one example of exciting new manure management technologies. This system uses billions of earthworms to digest cow manure removing 93% of total nitrogen, 97% of total suspended solids, and 90% of total phosphorus. The worms produce worm castings in such quantity that it is likely to substantially reduce the cost and increase the availability of this, the gold standard, in soil amendment. We do not see how it is to PSA’s and WELC’s benefit to be seen as the cause of the disruption of this important new opportunity for organic production.

  • Other new technologies

The Bio-Filtro system is just one example of many new emerging technologies to assist farmers to effectively manage their manure and find more productive uses for this beneficial by-product. To call it “waste” as the attorney for PSA and WELC has done publicly and in court is to ignore the significant value of this recycled material and its recycling potential. For example, Newtrient is a relatively new business supporting a great many new innovations in the dairy business. It provides a catalog of technologies that can help farmers improve efficiency and environmental performance. The Washington State Conservation Commission provided $3.8 million in grants to support several innovative new technology implementations including the new Janicki digester in partnership with the Stillaguamish Tribe and Natural Milk Dairy, one of our leading dairy farmers. The Vapor Recompression Distillation (VRD) processor will convert manure wastewater in real time into distilled recycled water, concentrated liquid ammonia, and a pathogen-free, dry, organic fertilizer or nutrient product. Another grant will support a second Bio-Filtro implementation on a large dairy farm in the Yakima Valley. While PSA and WELC are working hard to implement dairy destroying regulations, new technologies are emerging at an accelerating pace to enable farmers to more efficiently manage their farms and the manure by-product they produce.

  • Biogas digesters and other recycling

There are eight biogas digesters installed in Washington state. These convert manure into electrical energy while also eliminating over 99% of the pathogens from manure. The Monroe digester is a joint venture with the Tulalip Tribe. The treated manure solids are used as clean animal bedding while the treated waste water retains its nutrients for field application. An important benefit of these digesters is the ability to take other waste products such as pre-consumer food waste and recycle it.

A recent guest editorial in Capital Press by Austin Allred, the owner of Royal City Dairy, explained another important recycling benefit of dairy farms:

This is diversified substantially with trim and cull materials from food processing plants — carrots, peas, potatoes, beets, onions, cotton seeds, sweet corn which would otherwise be filling up our area landfills provides a wide variety of high-quality feed to be mixed into the cow ration. Wet brewers mash from beer makers, dry distiller’s grain left over from ethanol production, grape pomace from wine and juice making join all the fruits like apples, pears, cherries and more and add palatability and nutrition to the cows diet.

  • Ecological benefits

Dairy farm fields host tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl every winter, including over 50,00 snow geese and about 20,000 trumpeter swans. Conservation groups credit dairy farms with the strong resurgence of swans and other wintering birds. It’s ironic that farmers tolerate or welcome these even while the massive influx of winter birds harms farmland and contributes significantly to fecal coliform counts blamed on farmers. But birds are just the beginning of the ecological benefits. Numerous species of wild creatures call the farm fields home. Farmers strongly support actions aimed at protecting these and consider protecting and enhancing the natural environment a cornerstone of environmental stewardship and the quality of life they want to see future generations enjoy.

  • Environmental actions

While numerous environmental regulations mandate environmental protections, dairy and other farmers have gone far beyond regulations to ensure clean water, protect air quality and make efficient use of resources. Water use has been reduced by 60% by dairy farmers per pound of milk produced in the past fifty years. Farmers work with nutritionists to adjust cow rations to minimize methane emissions. The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from US dairy farms is remarkable as Dr. Frank Mitloehner of the University of California Davis has documented. Dairy production in India produces nine times more GHG per quantity of milk than US farmers because of dramatic productivity increases. Dairy farmers in Whatcom County participated in efforts to reduce or eliminate surface water withdrawals to protect stream flow and augmented stream flow using groundwater at times of lowest flow during late summer. In August, one farmer diverted his essential irrigation water to feed a stream needed to keep stranded coho salmon alive until they could be rescued. Farmers throughout the state have helped the Conservation Commission install over 800 miles of streamside buffers with Whatcom Conservation District alone planting over 1.5 million seedlings. This environmental leadership of farmers will become more well known to the urban public through a campaign beginning soon called “REAL: Real Environmental Action and Leadership” highlighting the many invaluable contributions of farmers to environmental protection.

  • Puget Sound Partnership’s Action Agenda

The Puget Sound Partnership’s Action Agenda identifies protecting farmland through the economic viability of farmers as a crucial element of protecting and enhancing Puget Sound’s environment. Over 60% of farmland in the Puget Sound region has already been lost. Whatcom and Skagit Counties are the last remaining viable farming areas with sufficient farming infrastructure to support the approximately 500 professional farmers. While some advocate for smaller farms, it is essential that the larger farms survive for without them the feed companies, tractor dealerships, equipment suppliers, numerous consultants and professionals needed for a vital farm economy will not be available for the part time small farmer.

Because of PSA and WELC’s litigation and other legal attacks on farmers by those associated with these groups, prominent farmers have already gone out of business or relocated to states without the anti-farm activism and litigation. Numerous other farmers are contemplating exiting the business in part because of the exceptionally harsh global economic climate for dairies, but also because of the unrelenting litigation and activism. The younger generation of potential farmers, seeing the stress and financial strain experienced by their parents, are choosing a different kind of life.


Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and Western Environmental Law Center have built reputations based on aggressive litigation in defense of the environment. Some of this litigation using the Clean Water Act is questionable as it violates both Congressional Action and the US Supreme Court. It continues only under the protection of the Ninth Circuit Court alone of all federal appeals courts. We have questioned the contributions to the Rose Foundation that then support some of the same groups filing “citizen” lawsuits, circumventing the clear intent of preventing citizens from profiting from this litigation.

The environmental activist reputations earned by PSA and WELC may not survive as donors and the public become more aware of the activities of these groups toward Washington state’s dairy farmers. Farmers have urged Puget Soundkeeper Alliance’s Executive Director to reconsider the organization’s stance against farmers and invited him numerous times to visit with farmers and be willing to learn the facts. The board president expressed willingness to meet with farmers and learn about our concerns until stopped by the Executive Director.

The litigation against farmers and farm suppliers such as Ferndale Grain are harming the dairy community and could permanently damage or destroy this valuable community. The thousands employed on and off our farms, communities dependent on these farms and the state economy would all be harmed if PSA and WELC continue. But more than that, our environment would be seriously and permanently harmed as our existing farms give way to suburban and urban development. The real harm to fish, habitat, air quality, water quality and quality of living arises from this conversion. Farmers are committed to doing all they can to stop this conversion and the activities of PSA and WELC that are contributing to the acceleration of this environmental loss.

Here’s how you can help:

Email Chris Wilke, Executive Director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and ask why he is working hard to force our family dairy farms out of business.

​Email: Chris@pugetsoundkeeper.org