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Officials Still Don't Know Cause Of Snohomish Farm Manure Spill

Carolyn Beeler

Officials still don't know what caused a huge manure lagoon at a dairy farm near the town of Snohomish to fail earlier this week. A breach in the lagoon that held the manure caused millions of gallons of liquid waste to run into a nearby river. Some of it then flowed into the Snohomish. Officials are working to determine the impact on water quality in the area.


Altose: "We're right now standing across the creek from where this occurred."

Larry Altose is with the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Altose: "So just on the other side of the creek you can even see the berm, which is the rise that is covered with vegetation. Had this been a normal day there would have been millions of gallons of dairy waste stored safely behind it. When the dyke failed it collapsed leaving a 30–40 foot gap in this 15–foot high earthen dyke, and through that opening there flowed a torrential flow of water spread out perhaps a 1000 feet and from there it flowed into the river."

Like most farms, the Bartelheimer Brothers dairy collects the manure from its cows year round. In the summer, the manure is used as fertilizer. But in the winter, it can't be absorbed into the land, and it has to be held somewhere. There are lagoons like this one all across the state, but Altose says this is the biggest that's ever failed.

Altose: "It is quite a large and catastrophic collapse, a collapse that hasn't been seen in this size in Washington state to date."

Ralph Svrjcek with the Department of Ecology spent the beginning of the week wading through a foot of muck at the farm.

Svrjcek: "It was disturbing to see the dark, polluted water foaming up and creating a problem for people and fish."

He and officials from a number of agencies were trying to determine what caused the lagoon to fail. They likely won't know for another month or so, after inspectors have time to analyze data they've collected from the site. For now the focus is on water quality in the small stream that's adjacent to the farmland, and in the Snohomish River.

Ralph Svrjcek says right after the spill, he noticed the fish in the nearby Slough were hurting.

Svrjcek: "We observed some fish at the surface moving their gills fastly and trying to get a little bit more water over them so they can breathe a little bit better."

Beeler: "But you haven't noticed any dead fish or anything?"

Svrjcek: "We've been really trying to keep our eye out for dead fish and we haven't seen any so we're very pleased to see that."

Oxygen levels are quickly rising, and Svrjcek expects them to only get better. But the effect of possible contamination on humans hasn't been determined yet.

State officials have been taking water samples from both the Slough and the Snohomish to test for E. coli and other bacteria found in fecal matter. The first test results should come back later today. In the meantime, the health department is advising people to avoid contact with the Snohomish River until the water is determined to be safe.

For KUOW News, I'm Carolyn Beeler.

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