Settlement Provides Clean Water, New Data in Factory Dairy Cases

Settlement Provides Clean Water, New Data in Factory Dairy Cases

First successful use of RCRA offers hope for widespread reforms at factory dairies

A Washington State industrialized dairy has agreed to settle a federal environmental lawsuit against it, saying it would go bankrupt if the suit went forward. The settlement is significant in that it will provide clean water for the low-income, minority neighbors for three miles surrounding the dairy – and critically, allow advocates to get detailed information about the environmental impact of area dairies’ impact on the groundwater.

Public Justice sued the dairy and four others for contaminating the groundwater in Washington’s Yakima Valley and threatening the health of surrounding community. 

The settlement requires R&M Haak dairy to remove excess manure, drain and dredge a lagoon storing manure, and let scientists then measure straight down to the groundwater to provide further evidence that these lagoons are poisoning the local groundwater.

“This settlement is incredible for our remaining cases against other Yakima dairies,” said Food Safety and Health Attorney Jessica Culpepper of Public Justice. “We can’t test any of the lagoons on the other dairies because they are so full of wastewater. Now we can see exactly how much these lagoons are leaking.” 

Details from the testing should be available later this spring.

The lawsuits had an early victory in June when a federal judge denied the dairies’ motions to dismiss, finding that dumping manure in excess of what is needed for fertilizer violates the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), a federal environmental law that governs solid waste disposal. If the ruling stands, factory farms can be held responsible for the full costs of their operations.

“No one has ever used RCRA successfully to challenge groundwater pollution from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs),” Culpepper said. “We broke new ground when the judge agreed with us that factory farms that are negligent in the way they use manure constitute solid waste dumps under RCRA.  Victory will mean that industrial farms can no longer dump waste and contaminate local drinking water.

 “This is a potentially powerful weapon to control practices that create hazards to food safety, the environment, and communities surrounding CAFOs,” Culpepper added. “Public Justice seeks to make these CAFOs clean up their act and create a model of success for future RCRA cases.”

The plaintiffs are looking for several kinds of relief in the case. One, of course, is injunctive relief that would require the dairies to reduce their pollution and perform clean-up operations until the groundwater is no longer contaminated and to perform monitoring to prevent future nitrate pollution. The lawsuits also seek to require that the dairies cease dumping manure into unlined lagoons; install extensive lagoon treatment systems; remove significant portions of waste from the property until those systems are in place; and perform clean-up operations.

As in the settlement this month, plaintiffs are also asking that the dairies be ordered to provide independent clean water sources for the residents of the local community because they rely on well water.

This relief would significantly increase the cost of industrial dairy practices and save the community from further contamination.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuits, the Center for Food Safety and the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment, first threatened suit against the dairies in October 2012. Representing the two advocacy groups along with Charlie Tebbutt, Public Justice served 90-day Notice of Intent to Sue letters, alleging that the diaries repeatedly violated RCRA and other federal environmental laws.

The notices came three weeks after the EPA released a 300-page report finding that all wells downstream from R&M Haak Dairy and a “cluster” of four other dairies in the lower Yakima Valley were significantly contaminated with nitrates, bovine antibiotics, and other pollutants. (Nitrates can cause severe health problems such as blue baby syndrome, several forms of cancer, autoimmune system dysfunction, and reproductive problems.) Dairies in Yakima Valley create as much pollution as about 3.1 million people — more than 13 times the entire population of Yakima County.

After the dairies refused to resolve the violations discussed in the notices, Public Justice filed lawsuits in February 2013

The lawsuits are part of Public Justice’s Food Safety and Health Project. CARE and CFS are represented by Tebbutt of Eugene, Ore., Public Justice’s Food Safety & Health Attorney Culpepper, Elisabeth Holmes of CFS, and Brad Moore of Seattle, Wash.

Photo by USDAgov – CC by 2.0

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