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Q&A: Reporting uncovers hidden health threats to drinking water

Q&A: Reporting uncovers hidden health threats to drinking water

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If pressed, I have to say that my proudest achievement as a newspaper writer was a series of stories I wrote with my then girlfriend, now wife, Jennifer Hieger, about the dairy industry while we were reporters at the Yakima Herald-Republic in Washington state. “The Dairy Boom” series explored how, in over just a few years, the eastern part of the state had become an industrial dairy powerhouse, and it detailed the economic, environmental, and societal impacts. The environmental part generated the most interest, and it prompted several follow-up stories and regulatory actions. In 1999, the series also won the Edward J. Meeman award for environmental journalism and the Gerald R. Loeb Award for financial journalism. I can still remember what it felt like to give a cow a pregnancy test or sit down for a country breakfast with the Meeker Brothers.

That’s why I was taken back in time a bit when I first saw Leah Beth Ward’s series about pollution from dairy farms contaminating well water in the Herald-Republic in 2008. The work was the result of her USC Annenberg National Health Journalism Fellowship.

Ward is now an editor at the Herald-Republic, and the newspaper has continued to break news about the dairies, well water safety, and the community impacts. When a judge ruled recently that dairies had to do a better job of containing the manure they produce, the ruling could be traced back to Ward’s reporting. Her work won several awards and accolades, including a special citation from the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism.

I got the chance to meet Ward at an Association of Health Care Journalists conference. I then interviewed her via email. Her responses have been edited for clarity.

Q: How did you first come upon your idea for investigating private well water in the Yakima Valley and what was one of the central questions you had in mind that you wanted to answer?

A: During Christmas Break 2008, the state health department issued a press release saying nitrates in drinking water at Outlook Elementary School in the rural lower Yakima Valley exceeded federal safety standards. The agency said water fountains would be off limits and bottled water would be available when the kids returned to school. 

It wasn’t much of a story at the time, but I asked enough questions to report that nitrates had been creeping up in the school’s water for some time, and quoted an agency official who said people in the area using wells for drinking water should also have their water tested. I also noted there were numerous dairies and feedlots in the area.

The idea for the series evolved from there, much like the proverbial peeling of the onion. My driving mission was to find out how many people were innocently and unwittingly drinking contaminated well water and why wasn’t government doing anything about this health issue. I really wasn’t thinking of it as a pollution or environmental issue at that point. I had so much to learn. 

Q: The Yakima Herald-Republic was reporting on the environmental problems of dairy farming back when I was a reporter there in the 1990s. Did you build on that reporting in any way? Or were you coming to the topic completely anew?

A: I was new to the topic. As a health reporter, I was focused on the public health issue, not the business story of how the dairies had grown so rapidly in search of economies of scale, creating environmental problems along the way. 

But those stories were my important introduction to the topic, and I picked up where you and Jennifer left off. She had a great story in 1998, so well written, that painted the big picture and how a new law was supposed to help fix the pollution problem. My reporting found that the new law was basically toothless as Washington’s Department of Ecology relinquished its enforcement authority to the Department of Agriculture, which has as its mission the promotion of agriculture and thus dairies.

So, for example, the glaring lack of inspectors, which you wrote about, never did get fixed, and they work for the Department of Agriculture and are loathe to fault dairies. And while the new “dairy nutrient management plans” were supposed to bring about proper manure handling, a federal judge, Thomas Rice, ruled recently that they basically aren’t worth the paper they are written on. Dairy managers just file them away, don’t take the lagoon measurements they are supposed to, and continue to apply manure to crops at way more than recommended rates. EPA data shows one dairy applied 7.7 million gallons of manure onto an alfalfa crop that already had taken up as much of the “nutrient” as it could. This is but one piece of evidence that led Rice to conclude the dairies are “openly dumping” solid waste.

Q: In what other ways was the situation different than during the 1990s?

A: My stories documented many failures of government, from ignoring studies showing pollution to political capitulation to the dairies by legislators. I don’t believe some of the people quoted in your stories would be caught dead saying the same things today. Take Laurie Crowe, the dairy technician at the South Yakima Conservation District. She said back then that the manure piling up in fields and lagoons “is not going anywhere.” Not only has that been disproved, but several dairies, under the gun from the federal court, recently agreed to line their lagoons by 2020.

I believe it was the critical “environmental justice” angle, however, that finally forced the EPA to begin exploring enforcement action a few years ago, notably after Obama was elected and EPA leadership changed. Most of the people drinking from well water are poor Latinos living in unincorporated Yakima County. They have neither political nor economic power.

In 2013, the EPA began testing water, drilling more test wells near dairies and establishing the clear link between improper manure management and groundwater contamination. This is the data that drove Judge Thomas Rice’s recent ruling — devastating to the dairies — that their practices pose “a threatened or potential harm” to public health.  He called manure a solid waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Prior court rulings called manure a beneficial byproduct of agriculture.

Environmental justice lawyers fighting Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in several other states are looking to use that law in their efforts and are following the Yakima Valley as the flashpoint for new CAFO developments.

Q: Was there any feeling of “been there, done that” among the editors, some of whom were leading the newsroom during our previous dairy series?

A: There was some of that, but managing editor Barbara Serrano, who came to us from the Los Angeles Times and who was not around for the previous series, was a big supporter. She was the one who pushed me to apply for the Health Journalism Fellowship at USC.

Next: How the Yakima Valley community reacted to the series.

Comments

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Bill,
I'm so glad you're recognizing Leah's achievement. You, Jennifer and she have achieved the highest goals of journalism. Your good work lives on!
Jane

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