Rough Waters Ahead: Holding Agricultural Polluters Accountable in Puget Sound

Our new report series, Rough Waters Ahead, written with Environment America Research & Policy Center, tells the story of the EPA’s work to protect and restore our nation’s great waterways – including the Delaware River Basin, the Great Lakes and Puget Sound – and how the Trump administration’s proposed budget would affect them. Our previous post described how an EPA-led initiative cleaned up Waukegan Harbor, a toxic pollution hotspot in the Great Lakes. In this post, we bring you a story of how the EPA held a polluter accountable for violating the Clean Water Act and endangering the health of Puget Sound and its residents.

Oysters, clams and other shellfish harvested from water polluted by fecal pathogens like E. coli, hepatitis and Salmonella can make people sick. When water contains too much fecal bacteria, shellfish harvesting in the area must end until water quality improves and shellfish are once again safe to eat. The Lummi Nation, south of the Canadian border, has had to repeatedly close shellfish beds since the 1990s because of fecal bacteria contamination, largely from dairy farms in the area.

In 2015, the EPA took action to address some of the pollution affecting the Lummi Nation’s shellfish beds. The EPA issued a compliance order and penalty to the R. Bajema Farm, a dairy farm located in Lynden, in Whatcom County, for discharging water loaded with manure into a ditch that leads to Fishtrap Creek, then the Nooksack River, and finally Bellingham Bay, without a permit. The runoff from the dairy farm emptied into the Sound near shellfish beds used by the Lummi Nation. The EPA ordered the facility to address its discharge issues to better protect the quality of nearby water resources and shellfish beds. In addition, the EPA has provided funding to place real-time monitors in Whatcom County to help provide data to separate the large number of compliant operations from the smaller number of operators that are causing water quality problems that impact shell fishing. [1] This allows targeted education and enforcement efforts that focus on bad actors.

In addition to cracking down on pollution from particular facilities like the R. Bajema Farm, the EPA works closely with the Washington State Department of Ecology to enforce the Clean Water Act. The EPA delegates implementation and enforcement of the Clean Water Act to the Department of Ecology, yet maintains oversight and bottom-line responsibility to step in if the Department of Ecology fails to protect water quality.

Efforts to reduce pollution from dairy farms and from stormwater overflows have helped reduce fecal pollution in Puget Sound, enabling Washington state authorities to reopen a net 3,695 acres for shellfish harvest in Puget Sound since 2007. However, 16 percent of shellfish beds are still closed, and more than 5,500 acres of shellfish beds’ conditions have changed for the worse or been downgraded since 2007, mostly in Samish Bay, due to ongoing pollution from agricultural runoff, septic system contamination, and wastewater treatment plants. Pollution continues to create a health risk to consuming shellfish: in March 2017, 40 people contracted norovirus after eating raw oysters harvested at Hammersley Inlet.

The Department of Ecology coordinates its enforcement work with the EPA to meet shared goals, and if the EPA has fewer resources, the agency will contribute less toward those goals. The Trump Administration’s proposal to cut 24 percent of the EPA’s enforcement budget could place the health of the Sound and its residents at greater risk of fecal contamination.

This is just one story of how the EPA has worked to protect and restore Puget Sound. Our report, Rough Waters Ahead: The Impact of the Trump Administration’s EPA Budget Cuts on Puget Sound, illustrates the EPA’s work with six additional case studies, and shows that now is not the time to hobble the EPA’s essential work to protect clean waterways. Fish consumption advisories and shellfish bed closures, as well as declining orca populations, show that we still have work to do in cleaning up Puget Sound. But budget cuts will put the EPA’s protection, enforcement, restoration, research and education work in danger – threatening the future health of Puget Sound.

Puget Sound is critical to the health and welfare of our families, our communities, and wildlife. For 40 years, EPA has been working to protect Puget Sound and its watershed from threats like stormwater, sewer overflows and industrial activity. Only a well-funded EPA can continue the legacy of progress in cleaning up Puget Sound and ensure that it is healthy and safe for us and future generations to enjoy.

[1] Dennis McLerran, Puget Sound Partnership, personal communication, 7 August 2017.

Top Photo: The biodiversity and landscapes of Puget Sound are part of America’s natural heritage. Credit: Ingrid Taylar CC 2.0.