Environment

The Dairy Industry Is Polluting America's Waterways—and Some Babies May Be Dying Because of It

Cheap dairy has hidden costs most consumers don't know about—including fatal birth defects.

Cow milking facility and mechanized milking equipment
Photo Credit: Ratthaphong Ekariyasap/Shutterstock

Low global milk prices and a historic dairy glut in the United States have recently prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase $20 million worth of cheese and donate it to food banks. This is excellent news for folks who typically can’t afford cheese, but cheap dairy production—paired with lax regulations—has dire consequences for too many Americans. In efforts to cut the cost of milk production, dairy farmers cut corners on pollution prevention measures necessary to protect the quality of a different beverage: water.

Large dairy factory farm operations, called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), store their manure in large lagoons and apply it to crop fields as fertilizer, but they must comply with strict standards in order to prevent nitrogen, phosphorous and fecal coliform bacteria from entering the soil and water. When those lagoons are not properly lined, or if a farmer applies manure as fertilizer a little too thickly, nitrogen seeps into the soil where it’s converted to soluble nitrate. From there, nitrates can enter surface waters and groundwater, which private wells tap for drinking water.

In Washington state, our 270,000 dairy cows produce a lot more than milk; they produce manure quantities well above what the surrounding environment can safely accommodate. It’s no coincidence that the two areas with the highest concentration of CAFOs in Washington are also home to wells with contaminated water at alarming rates. In Whatcom County, north of Seattle, 29 percent of tested wells had unsafe levels of nitrates; in central Washington’s Yakima Valley about 20 percent of tested well water is compromised by high nitrate levels.

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Nitrates can also have destructive effects on natural resources and the plants, wildlife and industries that depend on them. As nitrogen pollution in western Washington makes its way through the watershed and into the Puget Sound, it overwhelms shellfish beds, resulting in their closure.

The Safe Drinking Water Act sets the maximum contaminant level for nitrates at 10 milligrams per liter; higher concentrations of nitrates can cause blue baby syndrome, which is deadly if untreated, and has been linked to fatal birth defects. One of these neural tube defects is anencephaly, in which the fetus never develops parts of the brain and skull. In the Yakima area, anencephaly occurs more than four and a half times the national average, and more pregnant women are affected by anencephaly there than anywhere else in the country. Washington state health authorities have yet to rule out a causal relationship between the area’s highly contaminated groundwater and the prevalence of this devastating birth defect.

As with too many environmental hazards across the country, poor communities of color shoulder the burden of nitrate pollution. The Yakima Valley is home to a large Latino community and the local median income is more than 40 percent below the state’s. The area has some of the state’s highest rates of unmet need in health care, and local residents are uninsured at a rate two and a half times the national benchmark. The tragedy of Flint, Michigan taught us that environmental hazards like contaminated water hit communities like Yakima’s hardest. A lack of financial resources, exclusion from political empowerment and existing health disparities triangulate to create disaster conditions easily catalyzed by public health threats that affluent communities could more easily overcome.

The area also falls in the 86th percentile nationwide for renter-occupied households. Many of the homes people live in are served by private wells, so residents are dependent on landlords to get their water tested for nitrates and other contaminants. Thus, the pollution prevention measures that dairy farmers ought to follow are many of these residents’ first and only line of defense.

The dairy industry contends that elevated levels of nitrates in the area’s groundwater are likely due to mismanaged sewer systems. However, dairy cows produce nearly 10 times as much manure as humans by weight, and cow manure holds nearly 29 times the nitrogen content of human waste. A study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that 95 percent of all nitrogen in the Yakima valley comes from the agricultural sector (about 65 percent from livestock and 30 percent from fertilizers applied to crops). No more than 3 percent of the area’s nitrogen comes from septic and wastewater systems.

Nitrogen pollution from factory farms threatens water quality across the country, and it’s certainly not new to Washington State. But with the 40 percent drop in wholesale milk prices over the last two years, the public should be vigilant about ensuring dairy farms implement adequate pollution prevention measures. As in many states, Washington State’s Department of Ecology has the authority to regulate CAFOs to guarantee that all residents have clean drinking water. The department has been charged with updating the water discharge permit intended to guide and restrict CAFOs’ use and storage of manure. Instead of prioritizing the health of our environment and the communities who depend on it by issuing a strict permit, the Department of Ecology has created a weak permit that minimizes oversight and monitoring and fails to require technologies proven to prevent pollution.

The quality of drinking water for thousands of Washingtonians is now in the hands of Governor Jay Inslee. Will he step in and ensure that the Department of Ecology issues a strong permit that protects our state’s drinking water, shellfish beds and the health of waterways from the Puget Sound to the Yakima River, or will he allow a weak permit to move forward, leaving thousands of Washingtonians vulnerable to continued pollution? Over the past few months, more than 4,500 Washingtonians submitted comments to Gov. Inslee and the Department of Ecology calling for stronger state pollution controls for CAFOs.  

It’s this simple: if Inslee and the Department of Ecology strengthen the draft permit and issue a strong CAFO permit, we can protect our waterways and drinking water from industrial agricultural pollution. If the draft rule stands, factory farms will be allowed to continue contaminating our drinking water.

The Department of Ecology’s favorable treatment of industry—after the state legislature soundly rejected multiple bills that would have created a similarly weak permit—should sound the alarm to agricultural communities everywhere. If the global bust in the milk market continues, the dairy lobby will push government at all levels to diminish the requirements of dairy farms, and communities like the Yakima Valley will pay with their water.

Ellicott Dandy is the economic & environmental justice advocacy manager at the Seattle-based nonprofit OneAmerica