Nonprofit citizens’ organization takes on dairy in court

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

A nonprofit citizens’ environmental organization is taking on a corporate dairy operation in Washington state by filing a federal lawsuit for damages.

The case, Community Association for the Restoration of the Environment vs. Nelson Faria Dairy, Inc., has attracted the attention of a watchdog group that is directly concerned with the implications of the outcome for its members.

The Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water (ICCAW), according to its website, is “a statewide coalition of family farmers and community groups advocating for sound policies and practices that protect the environment, human health, and rural quality of life from the impacts of large-scale, industrialized livestock production facilities in Illinois. A majority of its members are family farmers and rural residents. …”

A bench trial was conducted from Nov. 15-17, 2011. The “Memorandum of Decision” represented the court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Red. R. Civ. P 50(a)(1) based on the record existing prior to trial, testimony presented at trial, and exhibits admitted at trial. The dairy was originally owned by Smith Brothers Farms, Inc., and in June 2004, Community Association for the Restoration of the Environment (CARE) filed a complaint against Smith Brothers in federal district court, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act.

CARE speaks out about pollution

Helen Reddout, president of CARE, had commented regarding the U.S. District Court ordering the dairy to conduct extensive groundwater monitoring. Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) have been cited numerous times for problems with manure seeping into groundwater. Reddout said the court order “shows that the dairy industry’s so-called ‘Best Management Practices’ (BMPs), which are supposed to control CAFO pollution, are nothing more than a sham.” She was also critical of the state regulators from the Washington Department of Agriculture for letting obvious violations slide.

The Rock River Times spoke with Helen Reddout recently about the case.

TRRT: How did you first get involved in this case against Nelson Faria Dairy?

Reddout: “It started several years ago. … I got phone calls from Royal City, a group of farm owners who were concerned about Smith Brothers Dairy and air pollution. … I talked to them and helped them organize. Eventually, I put them in contact with Charlie Tebbutt, an environmental lawyer in Eugene, Ore. My first case was CARE vs. Henry Bosma, which was big in ’97. It was a national precedent-setting case. This was the first time the federal court had defined what was enforceable under the Clean Water Act. We won that case. When this (new) case came up, I could recognize that it looked like a tremendous violation, so I got hold of Charlie. … He met with [the Royal City farmers], and he considered it a Clean Water Act violation; he took Smith Brothers to court, and we won that. There was a consent decree that they had to follow. They stayed in business for a couple more years, and they sold it to the people we brought suit against.

“We won the Smith Brothers Dairy case. After a few years, he sold out to the people in the new lawsuit. They figured that they did not have to follow the consent decree. We continued calling them and sending letters, trying to keep out of court. And [the owner] initially told us that we had no ground to stand on, and he would do as he wanted to. So, we went to mediation for almost a year. What we were asking for was test wells — not for drinking, just for testing water. He absolutely refused to do it, so the farmers that we were working with in the Faria case. … we put in test wells at our own expense. Once we saw the results, we decided something else had to be done. So they [the owners] offered a mediocre thing, and we said no, and we went to federal court. This was under the Clean Water Act, and again we won.

“This was a national precedent-setting case because this is the first time I believe that we have ever had a federal court judge say that the dairy’s Best Management Plan does not work and is polluting private wells. That’s a major step forward because when we made the settlement for this case, one of the things it requires is that test wells be put in and around the dairy. Now, we have already got test results back from this, and it is very high. They are not just polluting; they are poisoning the water.

“At 5 ppm [parts per million], that is when you are supposed to ‘red tag’ the well to make sure it is not getting up to 10 ppm. When it gets to 10 ppm, it is unfit for human consumption. These wells are up in the hundreds — 15 to 20 times higher than what is considered unfit for human consumption. That tells you we are poisoning our wells. Another problem we didn’t discuss in this case but is very important, is that in the high desert valley, we get less than 9 inches of rain per year. Now, when you are pumping, the rain replenishes the water in the underground streams, the aquifers. We do not have natural rainfall here, so the only thing we have is snow, and irrigation water from snow melt on the mountains, so we have limited water to replenish the aquifers. These dairies have come into an area with limited rain and pumping out millions of gallons of water. Now, we have places where our wells are dropping over an inch a month. There is a place east of us called Moses Lake, where it is predicted by 2017, there will be no water there. Why are we continuing to let these people run these huge operations in areas where it is destroying the aquifers? It is insane.”

TRRT: When did the Washington Department of Agriculture inspect the dairy and give it a favorable evaluation? Did no one notice any problems at that time?

Reddout: “All the time that we were sending out notices of pollution, the Department of Agriculture was coming over and giving not only good reports, but glowing reports about how well this was being taken care of. Our test results show that was a lie. Pollution was taking place every day.”

Activists collaborate on book

Karen Hudson is a farm wife and anti-CAFO activist who lives in Elmwood, Ill. She has worked with Reddout in the past on a national level. She had spoken with Reddout by phone in the 1990s before actually meeting her at an environmental water conference in Washington, D.C. She mentioned the book Animal Factory by David Kirby.

“Now we are with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP),” recalled Hudson.” “David Kirby called one day and said he was going to write a book about factory farms. I told him that I knew people all over the country that he could contact. … There were three main characters in the book: Helen Reddout, me and Rick Dove (a river keeper in North Carolina and a retired Judge Advocate General). The book is about what we’ve done in the trenches for clean air and clean water and social justice.”

Federal judge makes a ruling

A final resolution has still not been reached, but as reported by the Yakima Herald-Republic (Washington) in April 2012, a federal judge has called the dairy to account for its actions. An Order on Relief was issued Jan. 12, 2012, by U.S. District Judge Lonny R. Suko, in which Nelson Faria Dairy was ordered to comply with the provisions of the decree. Ross Courtney, author of the article, reported, “The widely divergent views of the dairy and its manure-management practices raise an old question: Can the Agriculture Department fulfill its twin statutory goals of promoting agriculture while also protecting the public?”

Meantime, the situation will be closely monitored — and the dairy will get no more free passes on inspections.

From the June 13-19, 2012, issue

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