- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2006

Environmental activists are teaming up with state attorneys general and trial lawyers to bankrupt the nation’s livestock farmers — in the name of saving the environment. If the situation wasn’t so serious, it would be hilarious.

The activists — including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists — are trying to convince Congress the nation’s farms should be treated as industrial waste sites and therefore subject to severe penalties under the federal Superfund law. Some state attorneys general, supported by trial lawyers, have filed lawsuits to the same end. Why? They argue, animal manure is a hazardous substance.

They now demand Congress refuse to clarify that the Superfund law was never intended to apply to natural animal waste. They are claiming — falsely — that without Superfund, animal waste would be unregulated. Manure already is heavily regulated under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and other federal and state regulations.

Proponents of adding animal waste to Superfund falsely claim small family farms won’t be affected. Under Superfund, huge penalties can be levied against small operations and even individuals. Tens of thousands of small family farmers could be affected.

Congress never intended the Superfund law to apply to farms — it was designed to clean up industrial waste sites like Love Canal. But because it did not specifically exempt animal waste, activists now seize on this lack of clarity to haul farmers before the courts and apply the draconian penalties permissible under Superfund.

If the activists succeed, farmers could face penalties of many millions of dollars, and thousands of small farmers could be forced off their land. “The domestic livestock industry would be driven from this country, the grain industry would be crippled, and farm families and communities would be devastated,” Oklahoma Farm Bureau chief Steve Kouplen warned Congress last November. “If animal manure is found to be a hazardous substance under Superfund, then virtually every farm or ranch in the United States could be written off as a toxic Superfund site,” says Missouri cattleman Mike John, also president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The activists’ efforts are a deliberate distortion of law, devised by some local authorities and a small army of trial lawyers seeking large settlements in which they and the activist groups would be the chief beneficiaries. “It’s simply a shakedown,” one dairy farmer told Congress.

“It would be a mockery of congressional intent,” commented Bob Stallman, head of the American Farm Bureau Federation. He notes farms and ranches that raise livestock are already among the most regulated business sectors for environmental quality, subject to extensive federal and state laws and regulations. Farmers are by their nature pro-environment. Healthy crops and livestock depend on a healthy environment.

None of this apparently matters to the activists, who may also see manure as a way to gain political sway over farmers. Given that federal and state environmental regulators are often sympathetic to, if not in outright league with, environmental activists, and that the Superfund law provides regulators with much discretion on how to identify and manage sites to be cleaned up, treating farms as Superfund sites would essentially provide activists a powerful political weapon to be used against farmers at the activists’ discretion. Farmers who don’t toe the environmentalist line may find their farms declared as Superfund sites.

Congress inadvertently caused this problem in the first place by not exempting animal manure from the original Superfund law. But who could imagine that such an exemption would be necessary? The good news is Congress can quickly solve the problem by passing a simple amendment to the Superfund law, clarifying that farm manure is not considered a hazardous substance under the Act.

A bipartisan bill to this effect has already been introduced in the House with nearly 160 co-sponsors. A companion bill with bipartisan support is about to be introduced in the Senate. Congress needs to get this done soon for the sake of this country’s farmers, consumers — who would face escalating food prices and shortages — and just plain common sense.

Cattleman Mike John says, “It’s just plain insulting to suggest naturally occurring manure on our family farm deems us a Superfund site.” Manure, it seems, is the appropriate word for this latest activist initiative.

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and is an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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