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Dairy farmers must supply neighbors clean water

A 79-year old grandmother in central Washington may have changed the way dairies operate across the country.
Dairy farm

OUTLOOK, Wash. -- A 79-year old grandmother in central Washington may have changed the way dairies operate across the country.

In a landmark agriculture ruling, a federal judge defined cow manure and urine as "solid waste," rather than a nutrient as it's often referred to in the industry.

Helen Reddout noticed a change in the valley when dairies started growing in the 1980s.

"You just opened the door and there was a constant barrage of flies," she said.

She also noticed a smell, and believed something more dangerous lurked under the ground. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of manure near her home in Outlook, she believed, was contaminating the drinking water supply.

Reddout lives a couple miles from Cow Palace, one of the Washington's largest dairies.

The owner, Adam Dolsen, is a third generation dairy farmer who's proud of what he's grown from his grandfather's humble beginnings in 1971. They have 11,000 cows, and milk 7,200 cows in a parlor three times a day.

But milk isn't all that comes out of the cows. The discharge of liquid manure is why Reddout has two kinds of water, one from her well, the other filtered through an expensive reverse osmosis machine.

"You can't look at it and see a difference, can you?" she said.

It's an investment she made after years of feeling sick. Eventually, she tested her water and found it exceeded EPA guidelines for nitrates.

"You'd just feel like you've been beaten with a baseball bat," she remembered.

It's when she started her legal pursuit to force the nearby dairies to change their waste disposal protocol. One-third of Reddout's 79-year-old life is documented in photos, but not the way most grandmothers' lives are recorded.

"I have more pictures of cow manure and cows in insufferable conditions than my own grandchildren," she said.

One of the dairies nearby is owned by Dan DeRuyter. Dealing with cow waste is a major part of his dairy operation, as it is with most dairies that concentrate large amounts of cows on small plots of land. The cows lie down on dried composted manure. The liquid they stand in to eat is called "nutrients," which is watered down manure and urine.

DeRuyter's cows produce 160,000 gallons of nutrients each day, which is stored in lagoons on his property.

"We're committed to being the best neighbors and being the best environmentally friendly business we can be," DeRuyter said.

Cow Palace has similar lagoons and rows of dried composted manure. It's sold for fertilizer and used on nearby farm land. Its storage methods meet federal guidelines.

But now, they have to do more.

"Because they've ignored the back end, literally, of the problem," Charlie Tebbutt. "It's the first decision of its kind in the country and it should transform the industry."

Tebbutt is the attorney who filed suit against Cow Palace. Three other dairies, including DeRuyter's, settled to avoid a lawsuit in light of its outcome.

Maps and previously confidential data prompted U.S. District Judge Thomas O. Rice to redefine nutrients as a "solid waste."

It's the decision Reddout's been waiting decades to hear.

"This is sewage," she said. "This is fermented sewage and it gags you."

The ruling confirms what she thought all along, that the cow waste is leeching nitrates into groundwater, posing "an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health," according to the ruling.

"Who has the right to contaminate their neighbor?" Tebbutt said. "This is the United States we live in. People are not allowed to trample over their neighbor's rights."

At Cow Palace, however, that ruling is questionable. They point to a history of agriculture in the area, and say dairies are unfairly blamed.

"We're invested in this community. We care about the people in this community," Dolsen said.

Dolsen considers his farm to be a progressive dairy. Cows have room to walk around under the sun. They spent millions on a nutrient centrifuge, which separates solid waste from liquid, Dolsen says, removing much of the harmful chemicals. They even have a 401K plan for employees in an area filled with low-paying, seasonal work.

Cow Palace already operates with standards above what's required in Washington.

"I feel like we're on the cutting edge," Dolsen said.

So does his neighbor, DeRuyter, whose expensive digester captures methane, turning manure into power and reducing greenhouse gases.

"I know we're going to do whatever it takes to improve our operations and be the best neighbors we can be," DeRuyter said.

But Reddout says she's heard that for years.

"It's just simply another stall tactic," she said. "They always have a golden apple, they always have a carrot they can dangle in front of you."

She thinks of the thousands she spent to clean her water, and all her neighbors who couldn't afford to.

"Even though our rights are being violated, they don't have the economic clout to go in and take it to court," Reddout said.

Community members held a meeting Thursday to learn what this means for them. The ruling affects nearly 600 homes. Many will receive bottled water and reverse osmosis machines like Reddout's.

It's all paid for by the dairies included in the settlement.

"This decision gives them hope," Tebbutt said.

It may also change dairy farms nationally, along with other animal feed operations. The dairies in the ruling are required to double-line their lagoons with synthetic material.

They must also work to clean up the soil contamination around them. It could take decades and millions of dollars. Dolsen worries only mega-dairies will survive if his settlement prompts others.

"A lot of the smaller guys, that's going to be tough to do," Dolsen said.

At nearly 80 years old, Reddout still isn't done fighting, and agriculture officials across the county are watching what happens in the valley she's called home since 1954.

"There's a balance in nature. What we've done has gone way past that balance," she said.

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