Dairy cows

Dairy cows feed at a feedlot in Sunnyside, Wash. on Monday, July 23, 2018.

Three environmental groups accusing a Lower Valley dairy of contaminating groundwater are now backing off.

The groups, CARE, Friends of Toppenish Creek and the Center for Food Safety filed the lawsuit against Majestic Farm LLC in U.S. District Court in April. Now they want to dismiss their case.

The groups accused the dairy of mismanaging cow manure by using leaky storage lagoons and overapplying manure to fields as fertilizer. They alleged the practices equated to “open dumping” in violation of the dairy’s nutrient management plan and the Solid Waste Disposal Act.

At issue is high levels of nitrates in Lower Valley drinking water. Nitrates naturally occur in soil, but heavy use of fertilizer, including animal waste, and leaky septic tanks can drastically increase nitrate concentrations.

High nitrates can be harmful to the elderly, pregnant women and infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

On Wednesday, the groups filed a motion seeking to dismiss the lawsuit in a way that would prevent any further litigation against the dairy’s owners — Nicholas and Janie Struikmans — but not the company.

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The motion doesn’t say what prompted the groups to seek the dismissal.

The groups’ attorney, Charlie Tebbutt of Eugene, Ore., wouldn’t say why his clients seek the dismissal.

“This decision does not suggest the facility is not contributing to the groundwater pollution in the Valley. My clients are continuing to pursue their long-standing efforts to protect the drinking water in the Lower Yakima Valley in their cases against larger facilities and intend to hold the dairies accountable for creating this problem and putting the people of the Valley in harm’s way,” Tebbutt said in an email.

The dairy industry is happy about the motion seeking the dismissal, said Gerald Baron, executive director of Save Family Farming, an advocacy group for the dairies.

“We think it could be pretty significant,” he said Thursday. “We are not sure of the reason, but as you know Mr. Tebbutt has filed several lawsuits against dairies.”

Some have resulted in settlements in which the dairies have agreed to significantly change the way they handle animal waste.

The lawsuits united dairy operators across the Valley in hopes of preventing further lawsuits and settlements they say are unfair and costly.

The controversy heightened in 2013, when Tebbutt and CARE successfully sued a handful of dairies in the Sunnyside and Granger areas. A study commissioned by the EPA linked those dairies to high concentrations of nitrates in nearby domestic wells.

That study led to a federal consent decree requiring the dairies to make expensive environmental upgrades and changes to manure management.

Now the dairies are fighting back. They criticize the EPA study, saying it was flawed. They also accuse the groups of using the study to leverage dairies into settlement agreements.

A recent ruling in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has allowed the dairy industry to move forward with litigation challenging EPA’s study.

Tebbutt has said those claims are bogus, and that much more data exists showing dairies are having a negative impact on groundwater.

U.S. Justice Thomas Rice is expected to sign the dismissal in the Majestic Farm case on Nov. 6, Tebbutt said.

Reach Phil Ferolito at pferolito@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @philipferolito