Chicken manure threatens Potomac River in West Virginia case; Groups file legal brief to protect public health and environment
A coalition of local and national public interest organizations yesterday filed a brief in federal court supporting the Environmental Protection Agency’s long-held authority under the Clean Water Act to regulate waste from commercial animal farms and seeking to confirm that a large West Virginia poultry operation should comply with all applicable regulations.
The Center for Food Safety, Earthjustice, Food & Water Watch, Potomac Riverkeeper, Waterkeeper Alliance, and West Virginia Rivers Coalition say neither the specific West Virginia agricultural operation in this case, nor the other tens of thousands of commercial farms like it across the country, should be exempt from regulations intended to protect waterways and public health.
“This case is not just about the Potomac River, and it is not just about one commercial poultry operation,” said Robin Broder of Potomac Riverkeeper. “The Farm Bureau wants this operation and other commercial farms like it to get a free pass from laws that protect the rivers and streams we use for recreation and for drinking water. This case is about safeguarding the waters in our own communities. Americans have a right to clean water -- businesses cannot take that away from us.”
The case was prompted by a large Hardy County commercial poultry operation’s refusal to comply with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) order directing it to obtain a Clean Water Act permit for manure pollution it was discharging. The facility houses 200,000 chickens at any one time and contains ditches that direct manure-contaminated runoff into a tributary of the South Branch of the Potomac River. The South Branch and many of its tributaries are already identified as impaired under the Clean Water Act because of unacceptable levels of pollution.
The Alt commercial animal operation admits that it is polluting the tributary, but claims its pollution is exempt from the Clean Water Act. The brief filed yesterday seeks confirmation that no such exemption applies.
“The decades-old, bi-partisan Clean Water Act has successfully cleaned up waters across the country,” said Scott Edwards of Food & Water Watch. “We must protect this law from attack from lobby groups like the Farm Bureau, which are more interested in profit than in clean and healthy waterways. If the Farm Bureau succeeds, it could have a devastating effect on already polluted streams, rivers, lakes and bays across the country.”
“Under the law, large commercial animal farms are not allowed to pollute our waterways without consequence,” said Elisabeth Holmes, staff attorney with the Center for Food Safety. “Yet here the Farm Bureau and the Alt operation are simply unwilling to accept that pollution control is the cost of doing business. Any exceptions to the rule greatly threaten public health and the environment.”
According to the EPA, agriculture is the largest source of pollution in U.S. waterways. The business of farming produces more than 500 million tons of polluting waste annually. This waste contains numerous contaminants, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment; pathogens and parasites such as Salmonella and E coli; dangerous heavy metals like arsenic and lead; pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics and hormones; and pesticides.
The South Branch of the Potomac River — to which the agricultural operation in this case eventually discharges —suffers from algae blooms, fish kills, and intersex fish. Water samples show several hot spots of significant bacteria levels, many of which are centered in areas with large scale factory poultry farms.
“Our coalition has made a strong legal case in defense of an interpretation of the Clean Water Act that actually protects our waters,” said Eve Gartner of Earthjustice. “The facts, the science, and the law are all on our side.”
The brief was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia. The American Farm Bureau, West Virginia Farm Bureau and Lois Alt filed a joint brief in the case on July 1.