Contaminated Community Will Get its Day in Court
By Jessica Culpepper, Food Safety and Health Attorney
Corral on west end of facility, with close up of manure. Photo obtained through a records request from the CA water board.
Residents in a Helendale, Calif., community finally had their voices heard when district court Judge Jesus Bernal yesterday denied a mega-dairy’s motion to dismiss their lawsuit. Now they will be able to fight in court to clean up the area’s soil and groundwater.
The residents have lived with unendurable stenches and thick fly infestations for decades in addition to having completely unusable well water due, according to the California Regional Water Board, to N&M Dairy’s manure contamination. The Judge ruled squarely in the community’s favor, stating that their lawsuit can move forward.
In addition to past nuisance claims for the odors and fly infestations, certain residents’ lawsuit alleges violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for over-applying manure onto fields and allowing it to sit in unlined cesspools where it leaked into the groundwater used by the nearby community. The wells are contaminated with dangerously high level of nitrates, which is the cause of blue baby syndrome, a life-threatening condition.
Let’s pause for a moment and ask a question: how does this happen? When people live in rural areas, don’t they know there are farms nearby with flies and smells? Communities like Helendale existed and thrived long before these factory farms started up and befouled their environment.
Mega dairies, and other Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations like them, have been cropping up over the past couple decades and they aren’t your average farm. In fact, it would be a misnomer to use the term “farm” to describe them. They are essentially animal factories – like a coal plant, with more cruelty. The pack in as many animals they can (sometimes tens or even hundreds of thousands) onto a landless cement facility where they ship in feed, fill the stressed animals with antibiotics and hormones to make them produce more, and then dump the untreated waste – as much waste as created by entire cities – onto fields and into cesspools.
More manure that they could ever properly handle. Manure that causes massive environmental and public health problems when it inevitably ends up in surface and groundwaters.
Wash water pond on east side of facility. Berms made out of manure. Pond almost filled with manure. Looking east. Photo obtained through a records request from the CA water board.
Residents in the Helendale community complained about the facility’s practices for years before meaningful action was taken. The mega-dairy has a long history of violating environmental and public health laws and it finally closed its doors in 2013, leaving behind a devastated community and groundwater that, if left untreated, would continue to be contaminated for at least decades. The residents brought their lawsuit to force N&M Dairy to clean up its act. (Residents are represented by Public Justice, The Simmons Firm, and BlueRiver Law.)
Rather than cleaning up its mess, however, the Dairy sought to dismiss the case saying that the residents should not have their day in court because the lawsuit challenged and conflicted with the state water board’s enforcement actions. The Court denied the mega-dairy’s arguments, stating that the case in no way challenged or conflicted with the state’s enforcement actions. The decision is the first of its kind, which could be used for others fighting similar claims, but is not officially recorded to enable that purpose.
Importantly, the Court held that the state’s enforcement actions were not brought under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and as the federal courts were the sole courts with jurisdiction over plaintiffs’ RCRA claims, the case would proceed. While courts have overwhelmingly agreed with this Court’s interpretation of RCRA’s sole federal jurisdiction, the Ninth Circuit had not reached that issue and there is a Circuit split on whether RCRA cases can be brought in state court.
What does this mean? It means that a bad actor must comply with BOTH state and federal environmental laws and may not hide behind prior unrelated enforcement actions.
It means that bad actors cannot try to bump plaintiffs out of federal court when they seek to remedy violations of solid waste and toxic waste laws.
It means keeping the court doors open for future plaintiffs, and it means finally giving this community the chance to undo the decades of harm they’ve endured.
It means that Public Justice’s Food Safety and Health Project will continue to push the law in the right direction and fight to bring communities this relief.