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News / Northwest

EPA adding resources in Yakima Valley for air quality and water

By Santiago Ochoa, Yakima Herald-Republic
Published: May 5, 2023, 11:32am

YAKIMA — Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said they are adding more air monitoring equipment and re-engaging on groundwater issues in the Yakima Valley.

EPA Region 10 Administrator Casey Sixkiller and his staff fielded questions from the public Monday during a community roundtable at the Yakima Valley College campus. Concerns included air pollution caused by forest fires, pesticides, nitrates in groundwater in the Lower Valley and landfill issues.

Representatives from the Yakima Health District, the state Department of Ecology and the Department of Health attended.

Most attendees, who represented community groups like Friends of Toppenish Creek, were frustrated that the issues brought up during the meeting have been known about and studied for years. Many felt solutions aren’t coming quickly enough.

“We’re running tests, we’re testing wells,” said Ron Sell, a member of Friends of Toppenish Creek. “But nothing ever happens.”

In a 2001 study, Sell and Linda Knutson were the first to identify high levels of nitrate in private wells in the Lower Valley.

Lower Valley groundwater

Since 2010, organizations including the health district, the Washington Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency have worked to identify the sources of nitrate contamination and map the affected residences.

Though nitrate occurs naturally in soil, heavy and extended use of fertilizers, including cow manure, can dramatically increase nitrate levels in the groundwater underneath the soil.

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The Yakima Health District is surveying more than 500 Lower Valley residents about nitrate contamination in the area. Preliminary survey results from the health district show awareness of the nitrate issue has risen by almost 50% among the surveyed individuals.

The health district also has been distributing bottled water to 46 homes in the area through the Lower Yakima Valley Water Pilot Project, which was started last year by the health district. The project is funded through June.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heightened exposure to nitrates through food and water can cause decreased blood pressure, increased heart rate, headaches and other symptoms.

A 2012 EPA study linked dairies in the Lower Valley to the contamination. The dairy industry disagreed, filing a federal lawsuit challenging the study. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2021.

Officials at the meeting said priorities have shifted in the EPA over different presidential administrations. Sixkiller said the agency is now looking to restart efforts to assist those affected by the nitrate contamination.

“We have again re-engaged our state agencies with the new administration and are talking with them about both providing drinking water as well as dealing with the sources of the pollution into the groundwater,” Sixkiller said. “That’s a process that we’ve just restarted.”

Air monitoring

EPA officials said a mobile air-quality monitoring laboratory would spend a few weeks in the Yakima Valley later this year.

The mobile air lab, as it was referred to by EPA officials, is part of a greater effort, which includes the installation of new air sensors in Sunnyside, Wapato and Prosser, to monitor air quality in the Lower Valley.

“This mobile lab we’re building has a lot of state-of-the-science instruments,” said Nicole Briggs, a meteorologist and air modeler with the EPA. “What I’ve been hearing from the conversation here is that there’s not just an interest in particulate matter but in understanding some of these more complex air pollutants and that’s what this lab is designed to look at; complex atmospheric chemistry.”

Briggs said the lab will spend six weeks in Yakima County monitoring winter-time air in the area. The lab will split its time evenly between the Lower Valley and the Upper Valley to monitor the two area’s distinct air quality issues.

Santiago Ochoa’s reporting for the Yakima Herald-Republic is possible with support from Report for America and community members through the Yakima Valley Community Fund. For information on republishing, email news@yakimaherald.com.