December 22, 2010
Unlike agricultural water discharges which are regulated for large farms defined as CAFO by the EPA and the Clean Water Act, most agricultural air emissions are not regulated. Water discharges and air emissions that are related to industrial scale agricultural operations in rural areas are big concerns for local communities. The Yakima Valley in Eastern Washington State is one of these areas. The historical use of this irrigated valley for agriculture has left a legacy of wells and groundwater contaminated with nitrates, chemicals and biological agents. At this time there is disagreement among local stakeholders about the source of these contaminants. There are no swine or poultry operations in the valley and dairy practices in the valley have changed in the last 20 years from small pasture based operations to industrial scale operations. The EPA and Washington Department of Ecology are currently conducting a groundwater study which was developed in 2008 using a community based research plan. Many individuals in the community are certain that the extent of the groundwater contamination is due to the expansive dairy operations in the Valley. Additionally it is becoming more apparent that large scale operations can have dramatic effects on regional water and air quality.
Leah Beth Ward presented a three-part series, “Hidden Wells, Dirty Water,” in the Yakima Herald Republic which explored the dairy industry, governmental agency policy and community concerns about the adverse environmental and public health effects associated with exposures to Yakima Valley dairy operations. Another YouTube video exposé of the area, “Dairyman Blues,” explored some of the concerns of community residents and the work of local activist groups in response to the change in dairy processes.
Environmental justice is also a concern in the region. The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation live on a 1.2 million acre reservation along the Yakima River in this region of Washington State and the Yakama Tribal Council is concerned that they are not being included in regional environmental decision making processes. In addition Yakima County has a much higher percentage of Hispanic populations (47%) than other areas of Washington State (9%). For these reasons, the Yakima Valley should be included on a list of environmental justice areas where minority populations are subjected to excessive exposures from polluting industries and hazardous wastes. One major stumbling block with agricultural communities meeting this definition is that governmental agencies do not consider animal manure and agricultural by-products as hazardous waste.
In response to air quality complaints by Yakima Valley residents and current air regulatory trends, which suggest that air emissions from agriculture may be subject to new regulations, the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency (YRCAA) introduced a proposed policy “Draft Air Quality Management Policy and Best Management Practices for Dairies”. This policy aims to address the air emissions of dairies by requiring the implementation of currently accepted best management practices. The proposed policy was presented for public comment until December 9th, 2010. In response, researchers from JHSPH including Keeve Nachman, Ana Rule, Meghan Davis and D’Ann Williams submitted a comment to address the shortcomings of the proposed policy. A link to all comments is available at YRCAA website.
We look forward to more discussion about the issue of industrial scale animal operations and community exposures, and we encourage interested parties to help expand our understanding of how communities protect their environment and communicate with industry. We also hope that this blog may provide useful commentary for other communities which may be experiencing similar concerns or problems.