A quartet of Washington State dairies settled out of court Monday after a federal judge — for the first time ever — said farms may be held liable for how they use manure fertilizer under a decades-old law on solid waste.
Community groups alleged that Cow Palace Dairy and similar operations in the Yakima Valley were applying more fertilizer than the land could handle, resulting in nitrate contamination of the area’s water supply.
Until now, large-scale dairies didn’t think a 1976 solid-waste law applied to their businesses and the vast quantities of animal waste they produce. Besides, they were subject to a patchwork of other clean-water laws and regulations.
That changed this year, when U.S. District Judge Thomas O. Rice said Cow Palace distributed so much extraneous fertilizer that it amounted to “open dumping.”
He ruled that posed an “imminent and substantial danger” to the surrounding community and the water it drinks, and said that meant opponents could sue under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 to try to stop the dairy.
Under the settlement, the dairies will limit their application of manure, use double liners in storage lagoons so manure does not leak out and provide clean drinking water to area residents until the contamination is eradicated, according to Public Justice, a public interest law firm that represented the community association that sued the dairies.
“Today’s settlement means these mega-dairies will, quite literally, have to clean up their act,” said Jessica Culpepper, a Public Justice attorney. “It also shows that, with the right systems in place, this industry can operate in a way that better protects public health and the environment in communities where they operate.”
The case spotlighted the steady shift away from small family farms in the U.S. to larger animal feeding operations. The resulting amounts of manure and air emissions already trigger four environmental laws — the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act and Superfund Act, congressional researchers noted.
Debora Kristensen, lead attorney for the dairy, said in an interview last month that the solid waste law shouldn’t be added to the list.
Typically, the solid-waste law is associated with chemicals waste and manufacturing scrap.
Ms. Kristensen could not immediately be reached at her law firm Monday for comment on the settlement.