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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.