Judge Rules Dairy Manure Causes Imminent and Substantial Health Risk
An image from the Ericksen report, submitted by the plaintiffs in this case.
By Jessica Culpepper
Food Safety & Health Attorney
The people of Yakima Valley, Wash., scored a major victory last Wednesday after more than two decades of fighting for their community and being ignored by the very agencies charged with protecting them, when a court ruled in a landmark decision that a mega-dairy polluted their water supply with manure in violation of the law.
Judge Thomas Rice in the Eastern District of Washington held that the mega-dairy’s storage of millions of gallons of manure in unlined lagoons and its years of overapplication of manure onto crop fields resulted in contamination of the community’s well water when the manure leaked through the soil into the aquifer below.
This is no bucolic farm with animals out on pasture – this dairy confines more than 10,000 cows and calves. Dairies of this size often produce more waste than the towns located nearby. While we have complex treatment plants to deal with human waste, these facilities dump untreated manure directly onto the ground in massive amounts, where it can pollute the environment and neighboring communities.
In the Yakima Valley, that is exactly what was happening – the neighbors’ water was far above the safe limits for nitrates from manure contamination. And while the dairy installed reverse osmosis systems for its own employees’ water, it continued to deny the contamination in the face of a suffering community.
This case was against one bad actor, but the practices at this mega-dairy are no different from thousands of others around the country. By affirming the argument we have been making for so long: that the quantities of manure generated at these animal factories hurt the environment and the communities forced to live next door, this court put an industry on notice that they can no longer dump their waste on their neighbors under the guise of “farming.”
This ruling will empower more communities fighting similar contamination and make this industry start operating in a safer way. Proper manure management will protect not only the environment and the local community, but the animals, the workers, and dairy consumers.
But the focus today is on the Yakima Valley case. CARE et al. v. Cow Palace Dairy, LLC, et al., was a landmark decision because it interpreted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to include manure as a solid waste – something industrial animal agriculture has vigorously opposed. This legal approach is particularly meaningful because RCRA offers far-reaching remedies to force a polluting industry to clean up their practices and the contamination they caused.
The Yakima grassroots organization Community Association for Restoration of the Environment and Center for Food Safety, represented by the Law Offices of Charles M. Tebbutt, Public Justice, P.C., and Center for Food Safety attorneys, asked the court to rule for the first time ever, that the mishandled manure at the dairy was a solid waste endangering the public’s water supply.
At the recent court hearing on this case, I was privileged to meet a number of the community members affected by the pollution in the Yakima Valley who had come to support the plaintiffs. As an attorney, many times victories come in the form of pieces of paper from the court, and this one is particularly powerful.
But the far more meaningful victory is the ability to tell a group of people you support through your work that they can finally stop fighting for clean water and a healthy community. That they won.