Skip to main content

Yakama Indian Nation fighting battle against cattle industry

TOPPENISH, Wash. – On the Yakama Indian Nation, people are vomiting from breathing fecal dust from cows and in some cases are unable to drink water from their wells, which are tainted by contaminants from dairy feed lots and contained animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

In a case very similar to a large-scale hog farm being constructed on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota (in defiance of a tribal court order), residents of this small Yakima County community are up in arms about a proposed CAFO moving onto deed land in the middle of the Yakama reservation. A family from the town of Sunnyside, headed by Andrew and Cathy Sytsma, wants to establish an operation of up to 7,000 cows on property they purchased along Pumphouse Road, just uphill from Toppenish Creek and a local wildlife refuge.

The Sytsmas, a non-Indian family, purchased a 480-acre parcel and plan to use 60 acres for their dairy operation. Residents, both tribal and non-tribal, distrust that environmental rules would be enforced on the 1.2-million-acre reservation and have joined forces to create a grass-roots movement to spread the word about the health and environmental risks associated with these cattle operations.

Local activist Jan Whitefoot said trust land is being used to dispose of manure and is being used to compost dead cows, potentially spreading disease and contaminating well water. “Last year we met with the county and gave them a list of the dairies operating here. There was only one that had a Yakima County permit, the rest were operating illegally on the reservation. The county is not enforcing the law,” she said.

Tribal member Pamela Wong introduced a resolution during a council meeting to ban new feed lots and CAFOs from reservation land and to stop the expansion of the six or seven already in existence.

Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman Ralph Sampson Jr. said, “I am in full support of the tribal council resolution that placed a moratorium on new CAFOs or feed lots or the expansion of existing ones within the reservation. I have seen no environmental reports about the proposed new CAFO to speak of; we had our environmental staff do some inquiries into ones [CAFOs and feed lots] that are already in existence throughout the West, and basically the tribe has the same complaints the people in the Yakima Valley have already voiced.

“We will continue to support the wishes of the people. It is definitely going to be a battle. I am hoping it doesn’t have to come to a battle in a courtroom, but I think it might have to go there.”

Residents collected more than 2,000 signatures on a petition supporting the ban.

According to public records, the site has undergone feasibility studies and has a waste management plan the family is willing to make public. The Sytsma family is also working with an agronomist to make sure the proposed state-of-the-art facility will not strain the area’s soil and water resources. The Sytsma family did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production investigated problems associated with industrial farm animal production operations and, according to Whitefoot, recommended CAFOs be phased out within 10 years.

“This has become a way of corporate farming – they use less acreage, have more animals being fed antibiotics who live their whole lives on concrete, and cause harmful health problems to people and the environment. This is a national problem and also challenges tribal sovereignty,” she said. Yakima County has more than 71 existing CAFOs.

Tribal member Colleen Reimer said, “The county does not have a good history of enforcing environmental laws. Our treaty rights state this land was set aside for the exclusive use and benefit of the Yakama Indians. The emphasis in this case is on ‘benefit.’”

Eric Anderson, a retired investment banker and spokesman for the group Friends of Toppenish Creek, said, “CAFOs use an inordinate amount of well water and in many communities the entire water level has gone down and wells have had to be drilled deeper. We are just starting to find out how dangerous the air pollution from CAFOs is in respect to the dairy operations. What we are facing here is powdered cow crap that goes into the air and carries any number of diseases.”

Anderson, who is nontribal, said the community has been drawn together over what they perceive as a threat. “The Sytsma family hasn’t demonstrated over time they are faithful stewards of the water because in every instance we have investigated, they are unregulated. Without regulation, they essentially do what they want. CAFOs are invariably corporations whose mandate is to maximize shareholder value.”

The tribe has claimed sovereign water rights as deep as the water runs. “There are a lot of funny things that happen when the Yakima River gets high and dirty-looking, it seems that a lot of the lagoons full of cow waste magically empty out,” Anderson said.

Environmental Protection Agency Region 10 CAFO Enforcement Coordinator for NPDES Steven Potokar said, “I can speak to the regulations but not the impact on the Yakima Nation. We do have regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act and CAFO regulations to take action against those facilities which have unauthorized discharges to surface waters of the United States. The EPA has no authority over the sitting of CAFO facilities or the land use decisions of local jurisdictions like cities, counties, or tribal governments.

“If this dairy relocates and has a potential to discharge, or proposes a discharge, they need a permit. They won’t need a permit it they are not going to discharge to surface waters. Our regulations are there to protect human health and the environment, where we see discharges to surface water that is where our program would come in and take a role enforcing regulations.”

Jean Mendoza teaches nursing at Heritage University on the reservation and works as a nurse at Sunnyside Community Hospital. “The incidence of campylobacter infection in Yakima County is over twice as high as any county in the state and the asthma rate is 33 percent higher than the state
average,” she said. “If my memory is correct, a recent study by the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinics found 9 out of 52 domestic wells with nitrate levels higher than 10 percent. Some of these wells are used by farm workers who are reluctant to report the findings because they rent housing and would be evicted if they complain.”

“Everyone has a right to live on their land and expect clean water and air. This land was given to me by my grandparents so I could have a home for my children. I can’t just move; I plan on living here the rest of my life,” Wong said.

The Yakama Reservation consists of Mount Adams, the Yakima River, Medicine Valley, Celilo Falls, Fort Simcoe and the Columbia River: a mix of evergreen forests, meadows and rolling hills. As tribal members pick huckleberries, gather roots and chokeberries, and fish for salmon, they wonder how much more abuse their environment can take before the berries are gone and the salmon are too poisoned to eat.