Fecal matter pollution in public water: The case of Snydar Farm

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Nooksack River in Whatcom County. The Nooksack watershed contains high levels of fecal matter contamination from agricultural sources.

The Snydar Farm had a real problem with “raw manure," that mix of feces and urine produced by livestock. Namely, the farm’s cows were creating a lot of it – in excess of 5,000 pounds every day. According to the Department of Ecology, it was ending up in public waterways, where it could impact everything from drinking water to the shellfish industry.

The farm is located in Ferndale, a town 10 miles north of Bellingham in Whatcom County. Its owners, Jim and Victoria Snydar, recently received Ecology’s first livestock-related water pollution fine in over three years.

But the Snydars' alleged environmental crimes were not new. Seven years have passed since Ecology first warned them that they needed to clean up their operation. Documents obtained under the Public Records Act paint a picture of an agency charged with protecting state water quality, but hesitant and often barred from regulating the agricultural industry. That industry is the nation’s largest water polluter according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and the reason Whatcom County has some of the most contaminated drinking water in the state, according to a 2012 Department of Ecology report. That contamination mostly derives from manure.

“They’re the weakest agency on earth,” says Andrea Rodgers, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, a Eugene-based firm that works pro bono throughout the region. “And they have good reason to be scared of the people they’re supposed to regulate. Every time they use their regulatory authority, agriculture runs to the legislature and gets their budget cut, and their authority cut.”

The Snydars first heard from Ecology in 2008, when an inspector warned them that their cows could not keep defecating into a nearby creek. By the time inspectors wrote again two years later, things had taken a turn for the worse.

“Your facility is one of the most poorly managed livestock rearing operations I have observed,” inspector Mark Kaufman wrote them in January 2010. “I can say with near 100 percent surety that your facility has discharges of manure-contaminated water into state waters during every rain event.”

That 2010 letter accomplished two things – it documented the farm’s environmental offenses, and leveled a serious-seeming threat. As for the crimes Ecology said it found, they included:

  • Having a pile of raw manure and a “vast amount” of “muddy” manure-contaminated patches, all sloping toward nearby state waters.
  • Raw manure purposefully spread throughout the farm’s field, with water flowing through it and into nearby state waters.
  • Livestock depositing their manure into a nearby creek.

All of these conditions added to the fecal coliform and nitrate contamination in their watershed. At the time, Ecology threatened to hit the Snydars with a fine of $10,000 a day if they didn’t immediately start fixing the problems. They were given a week to get the process rolling. "Compliance," Kaufman wrote, "is now required and expected."

Over five years later, when samples of the public waters near the Snydar Farm showed fecal coliform bacteria over 85 times above the state’s limit, the fine had still not arrived. When it did arrive this past September, it was for a total of $12,000.

“It’s sensitive ground we’re working on here,” says Doug Allen, manager of Ecology’s Bellingham field office, when asked why the Snydars were never forced into compliance. “We haven’t had a lot of systemic enforcement on this stuff, for reasons that, well, it’s sensitive stuff. ... We’ve got this penalty out there, and we could end up in litigation over this. I’m really uncomfortable getting into that.”

In most cases, the state offers livestock farmers taxpayer-funded assistance to reach compliance with the Water Pollution Control Act, Allen says. Ecology’s 2010 letter to the Snydars advised this option, instructing them to contact the Whatcom Conservation District for technical assistance. “I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the level of service they provide with no charge,” the letter states.

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The Department of Ecology's documentation of Snydar Farm's waterway pollution.

But the Snydars allegedly wanted no part of it. “They’ve been very unwilling to engage,” says Krista Kenner, communications manager for Ecology. “We’ve met them in person, we’ve had them on the phone. My sense is they’ve been reluctant to engage.”

In interviews, Ecology staff hint that their interactions with the farmers have been pretty unpleasant. When I call the Snydar Farm for comment on the case, the woman who answered the phone – who would not identify herself – launches into an expletive-laced tirade about my having the nerve to call her about the issue.

“This is no one else’s fucking business but ours,” she shouts before hanging up.

Agricultural interest groups might back the Snydars up, though its difficult to say to what extent. Brandon Roozen is executive director of the Western Washington Agricultural Association, an advocacy organization that lobbies lawmakers on regulatory issues related to farms, among other things. He insists that a “voluntary approach” is the best way to ensure that farmers comply with water regulations. Should a farmer reject these voluntary measures, as the Snydars appear to have done, he will not say whether governmental agencies should take enforcement measures.

“There is no silver bullet,” Roozen says. “What we have all learned is that each situation is different and unique because of the various factors associated with each. Therefore, we look for proactive and feasible avenues towards resolution. If the efforts do not work, and/or the landowners refuses assistance, other tools must be introduced to address the situation. Sometimes, due to the circumstances, that may take time.”

Roozen says he could not find time to review the specifics of the Snydar case, and therefore couldn't comment beyond generalities. He hedges when asked point blank whether farmers who don't cooperate with Ecology's direction, who do not fix their problems, should ever be fined.

“You are painting a very black-and-white situation, that again, without a better understanding of that which you are asserting, is difficult to answer with a yes/no answer,” Roozen says. “Violating the law has consequences. How an individual and/or agency works through that often has a variety of potential outcomes that, particularly in this case, neither you nor I can judge without better understanding of the facts in play.” 

For environmental attorney Rodgers, the issue is more clear-cut. The reason Ecology officials like Allen are uncomfortable talking about this case – and the reason it’s taken them over seven years to issue a fine to the Snydars  – is that agricultural interests represented by groups like Roozen’s have “punished them for doing their job” in the past, and pressured legislators to strip them of their resources.

Ecology's Allen seems to allude to this when asked about the fine the Snydar Farm was threatened with in 2010, and the considerably smaller fine delivered after five more years of noncompliance.

"This gets to resources we have available to do this work," Allen explains. "In 2010, we had an agriculture inspector who was going around looking for these things. But he got redirected to do some different work in other industries. For a while, we didn’t have an agricultural inspector."

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Nitrate levels in Whatcom County's drinking water, primarily caused by agricultural manure/fecal matter. All orange and red markers indicate amounts over allowed limits. Credit: Department of Ecology.

Put another way, the resources Ecology needed to inspect farms in the Bellingham area were taken away. The funding for inspectors only returned, Allen says, because of an effort in the statehouse to help the shellfish industry, which is hurt by fecal matter in waterways. The Lummi Nation – located on the Nooksack watershed, which contains a great deal of fecal contamination – has been forced to close shellfish harvesting in recent years due to fecal matter pollution.

Throughout our interviews, Ecology officials Allen and Kenner take special care to note that we're only talking about non-dairy livestock farms, such as the Snydar Farm. When it comes to putting fecal matter into public waterways, Rodgers says these sorts of operations are small potatoes compared to dairy farms.

Ecology once regulated them as well, before that authority was transferred to the Department of Agriculture in 1998, as part of the Dairy Nutrient Management Act.

“When Ecology started regulating farms, agricultural groups went to state legislators and had them strip the department of that authority for the most part, and put the fox in charge of the hen house – i.e. the Department of Agriculture,” says Rodgers. “Since that time, pollution has gotten worse. The Department of Agriculture are cheerleaders for the voluntary approach to dealing with pollution. Taxpayers have put billions of dollars into this voluntary approach, which is basically paying farmers money not to pollute.”

Nonetheless, dairy farms and the state cattle industry are feeling threatened by Ecology recently. The agency has proposed to rewrite state regulations that relate to "manure lagoons" at cattle farms, and the safeguards against their leaking into Washington's public waterways. Manure lagoons are just what they sound like -- large pools of manure -- and many of them lack any lining that would prevent them from leaking into groundwater.

The Washington State Dairy Federation has expressed concern that Ecology's proposal would allow the department to take back some regulatory power from the Department of Agriculture. That would give Ecology the ability to go after bigger farms than the Snydars’. In a letter obtained by Crosscut dated October 9, the president of the Whatcom Family Farmers organization, Ed Blok, declared war on the effort, describing the new manure regulations that Ecology is considering to be “outrageously costly and burdensome.”

“We have never in our family farm history faced threats of this severity,” Blok wrote.

In response, he stated that a "statewide" lobbying effort to lawmakers was a priority, and boasted that the organization had "stopp(ed) a highly negative story based on false accusations from being published." He wrote that he wanted to push one primary message in the media: “Farmers protect water and the environment.”

In an email to us, Western Washington Agricultural Association's Roozen reiterates that message:

"Contrary to many assertions of agriculture as being a primary source of pollution in our environment, please consider an alternative viewpoint. Agricultural landowners as a whole are the primary stewards of the land. Their day-to day practices on their land is an investment into their future. The better they care for the land, the better the land provides for them, which in itself is incentive to carry out operations which are not detrimental to that land (and water). Voluntary stewardship by agricultural landowners is unmatched by any other land use providing goods to our communities."

A formal proposal for new manure regulations is due from the Department of Ecology early next year.


Correction: This piece originally stated the Snydar Farm was in the Nooksack watershed, based on a 2010 document from Ecology. Spokeswoman Krista Kenner says this is because they are located in the general Water Resource Inventory Area 1, and for a time anything in that area was marked as being in the Nooksack watershed. The Snydar Farm is technically on the Drayton Harbor watershed. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at drew.atkins@crosscut.com.