Several Washington dairies have filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the federal government from disclosing their confidential business information to the public.

The dispute arises from a broader controversy between the dairy farms, federal regulators and an environmentalist group.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigated the four farms -- Cow Palace, George DeRuyter and Son Dairy, Liberty Dairy and H&S Bosma Dairy -- in connection with possible groundwater contamination.

The agency was looking for possible sources of nitrate that was detected in drinking water wells in the Lower Yakima Valley.

Last year, the EPA sought specific information from the four dairies while negotiating a settlement agreement to improve water quality in the area, according to a complaint filed by the farms.

In response, the dairies turned over documents pertaining to their waste lagoons, cattle numbers, soil test results, water volume usage, drainage information and other data, the complaint said.

The companies later reached a settlement with the EPA that required them to monitor groundwater, develop plans to prevent nitrate leaching and upgrade their lagoons, barns and other facilities, among other measures.

Meanwhile, the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment, or CARE, filed a public records request seeking "all communications" between the agency and the dairies.

The group eventually filed a lawsuit against EPA for withholding documents and against the dairies for allegedly violating several environmental laws.

In CARE's litigation against the dairies, a federal judge refused to remove the "confidential" designation of certain documents submitted by the dairies, which prevented them from becoming public.

Even so, the EPA has now determined that those documents aren't exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, according to the dairies' complaint.

The dairies claim that CARE wants to circumvent the judge's order and EPA would break the law by releasing those documents, which the environmental group has already seen.

"CARE's only reason for making its FOIA request to EPA is so it can use the dairies' internal, confidential documents as part of a public relations campaign to smear the dairies with allegations of wrongdoing," the complaint said.

If the EPA publicly discloses the documents, the four companies' business will be harmed and other dairies will be reluctant to enter into similar deals with the agency, the complaint said.

Capital Press was unable to reach attorneys for the dairies, the government or the environmental group for comment as of press time.

CARE's lawsuits against the dairy farms and EPA are still pending.

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