SUNNYSIDE -- There's a chemical you can't see, smell or taste in the water of many people living in the Lower Yakima Valley.
Test results show tap water for hundreds in the Lower Valley is contaminated by nitrates from farms and environmental groups say cows are the culprit.
"Lower Yakima Valley is one of the one of the more concentrated areas in the country where large dairies are operating and because of that concentration, they're causing massive contamination of the groundwater," Charlie Tebbutt, an environmental attorney said.
The state Department of Ecology says the nitrates in the water come from cow manure when it seeps into the groundwater, poisoning drinking water for those with wells nearby.
According to the Department of Health, nitrates cause blue baby syndrome, a disease which prevents blood from bringing oxygen to different parts of an infants body. Nitrates are also linked to other birth defects and have the potential to cause cancer in adults.
An environmental advocacy group called community association for restoration of the environment or CARE has tested over 400 wells in the Lower Valley. They found almost 40 percent tested at over ten ppm, a level unfit for human consumption. One well tested at 101 ppm, ten times the limit.
"A lot of people don't know about this problem and it's a major social justice issue, just like Flint, Michigan or the civil rights movement of the sixties in Selma, Alabama," Tebbutt declared.
People living in these rural areas say they had no idea their water was endangering their health.
Erica Morales said she and her family have lived in Outlook for over ten years and never would have guessed their water wasn't safe.
"I wasn't aware, I don't know how long it has been contaminated, they don't have a time frame," Morales said. "I've been here since 2008, we never had any people come check our water none of that stuff," she added.
The dairy farmers argue they do contribute to nitrates in groundwater, but they are only one part of the problem.
"Nitrates are everywhere and it doesn't always correlate to where dairy farms are," Jason Sheehan, owner of J&K dairy said. "Are the dairy farms part of nitrates, yes, a small part, there's a number of different things that go into nitrates in the ground water, on-site septic systems are one of them."
According to a 2016 Department of Ecology report, 58 percent of nitrates come from dairy farms backed up by research done in a EPA report from 2013. The dairies however, question the legitimacy of the conclusions.
"When they classified the report as highly influential, they were supposed to have peer reviews outside the EPA and they chose not to have the peer reviews," Sheehan said. "Some of the people who did the peer reviews didn't get all the information from the report, they got select pieces of it and those people asked for their names to be removed from the peer reviews."
Charlie Tebbutt, who has sued local dairies since the early 1990s, said the dairies are directly responsible for the contamination and the regulatory agencies haven't done an adequate job protecting the people who live in the Lower Valley.
"Department of Ecology has willfully ignored the problem for decades and it's been brought to their attention since the 1990s, and they just simply ignore the problem because of the political influence of the dairy industry," Tebbutt said.
But these lawsuits have economic consequences to an already struggling industry in our valley.
Some dairies have gone under, costing people their jobs and their livelihoods.
According to Sheehan, his business has reduced labor to the lowest amount ever and they're still looking at cutting additional labor costs due to fear of litigation.
"We have a real passion for doing the right thing and doing everything possible to take care of the environment because our roots are here this is where we live," Sheehan said.
A representative for the dairymen told us at least two dairies have sold their cows and quit the business as a result of litigation.