U.S. dairy leaders warn that a Jan. 14 ruling by a federal judge in Washington State could open a Pandora’s box of litigation that could spread beyond the livestock sector.
U.S. District Judge Thomas O. Rice ruled manure from a Yakima Valley dairy qualifies as “solid waste” under 1976’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) law.
The 111-page decision is the first judicial ruling in the U.S. to consider manure, when improperly managed, a solid waste under federal law. The ruling is a “potential fiasco” for agriculture, says Bob Gray, senior dairy policy advisor, Northeast Dairy Farmers Cooperative. “It will have major legal implications for manure applications on cropland and storage across the country.”
Rice found Cow Palace LLC, one of Yakima Valley’s largest dairies with 11,000 cows and 8,000 acres, is contributing to the high nitrate levels that are contaminating local groundwater through its manure application, storage and management. He ruled that manure that leaks from lagoons or is over-applied to fields is considered “discarded” as a solid waste. The manure pollution poses an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to the environment and to people who drink the water, and the dairy is liable for “open dumping,” Rice says.
RCRA regulates solid and hazardous wastes through the Environmental Protection Agency. Livestock and agriculture defenders point out RCRA’s provisions don’t apply to agricultural wastes that are “returned to the soil as fertilizers or soil conditioners.”
They worry that even those who follow authorized agronomic plans could be held liable under the Yakima Valley precedent. Cow Palace has operated with a state-approved nutrient management plan since 1998.
“This case isn’t about manure but about nitrogen,” says Jay Gordon, Washington State Dairy Federation. “The judge is saying National Resource Conservation Service standards across the U.S. are not good enough. The case stems from a 2013 lawsuit by Community Association for the Restoration of the Environment (CARE) alleging RCRA violations at Cow Palace.”
CARE accused Cow Palace of letting lagoons leak millions of gallons of manure each year, allowing nitrates to leach into groundwater. CARE also alleged that Cow Palace exceeded agronomic rates and over-applied manure nutrients to fields.
In his ruling, Rice denied Cow Palace’s petition to dismiss the lawsuit and agreed with the plaintiffs’ allegations. A March 23 trial will determine penalties and address whether the RCRA law applies to manure produced by cows on unlined soils. Cow Palace attorneys are considering an appeal of the January ruling and will likely do the same if the March trial goes against the dairy.