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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Other Papers Say: Solutions needed, not studies

By Yakima Herald-Republic
Published: May 21, 2023, 6:03am

The following editorial originally appeared in the Yakima Herald-Republic:

The late Ronald Reagan uttered one of his best-remembered quotes during a White House news conference nearly 40 years ago:

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language,” the former president said, “are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’ ”

That was in 1986, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Ecology and local health officials were probably monitoring the Yakima Valley’s air and water even then.

Reagan, of course, was in the vanguard of early efforts to strip funding and power from agencies that were established to protect Americans’ health and our natural environment. He believed that government tended to be so inefficient that it generally caused more harm than good — so perhaps he’d be pleased to see the progress his conservative descendants have made in defanging agencies like the EPA.

And no doubt the 40th president would be saying “I told you so” if he could’ve sat in on a recent EPA community roundtable discussion at Yakima Valley College. During the talk, which included representatives of the Department of Ecology and the county Department of Health, federal officials announced they’re ramping up efforts to test local air and groundwater.

EPA Region 10 Administrator Casey Sixkiller’s news didn’t exactly win over folks like Ron Sell from the environmental group Friends of Toppenish Creek.

“We’re running tests, we’re testing wells,” Sell said. “But nothing ever happens.”

Sell’s organization is particularly concerned with nitrates in the Lower Valley dirt. Nitrates occur naturally in soil, but heavy long-term use of fertilizers — including cow manure — can significantly raise nitrate levels in groundwater.

Nitrates are a valid health concern, and it’s critical that agencies like the EPA and Ecology gather data on their presence. The Yakima Health District, which is already providing bottled drinking water to 46 Lower Valley homes, has been surveying 500 Lower Valley residents about their awareness of nitrates.

But the frustrations of groups like Friends of Toppenish Creek are also valid.

The EPA, Ecology and the health district have been trying to figure out where all those nitrates are coming from since at least 2010. It’s understandable that the EPA’s announcement of its plans to step up testing is met with eye-rolls. What kind of evidence will it take to nudge federal, state or local officials into doing something to address the actual problems?

As Sixkiller and other officials hinted during the YVC talk, some of the lack of action can be attributed to seesawing priorities that hinge on who’s running the federal government from election to election. Maybe years of attempts to defang agencies like the EPA has taken a long-term toll.

At some point, though, even Ronald Reagan would be calling for some serious solutions, rather than more studies.