A chicken-farming grandmother from West Virginia has won a major victory for all farmers against the Environmental Protection Agency, which had threatened her with millions of dollars in fines in a case that could have impacted thousands of other farmers.
Lois Alt sued the EPA in 2012 after the agency tried to fine her $37,500 per day – that is, more than $1 million per month — for allegedly violating part of the Clean Water Act. The agency claimed that Alt was violating the act every time it rained. The rain, EPA said, would come into contact with small amounts of dust, feathers or manure on the ground that had settled there from the chicken coop fans, and the storm water would end up in local ditches and then streams.
“I knew that we were doing everything we could possibly do to guard against any time of pollution, and it really bothered me” Alt said.
Alt, though, beat the EPA, when a U.S. district court ruled that Alt’s farm is exempt from National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System requirements. The requirements receive their authority from the Clean Water Act. In fact, the judge said that all farms with ordinary storm water runoff are exempt. The EPA is appealing the ruling, but the tone for the legal case has been set.
“Ms. Alt has courageously taken on EPA not just for her own benefit, but for the benefit of other farmers,” said Bob Stallman, the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “She refused to back down from her principles despite the best efforts of EPA and environmental groups.”
Farms Compared to Sewer Plants
The federation and the West Virginia Farm Bureau joined Alt in the suit because the EPA’s efforts had the potential to impact thousands of similar farmers across America. The agency’s contention was that waste from the eight coops where Alt raises 200,000 chickens a year in chicken houses was as dangerous to the environment as sewage.
The EPA was arguing that the water from Alt’s farm was processed wastewater, for which she needed a special permit. Alt’s attorney’s argued that the water was not polluted enough for such a designation.
EPA’s Standards Not Based on Science
A recent scientific study showed that there was no scientific basis for the EPA’s decision. Instead, the study showed that Alt was right.
The study from the University of Delaware showed that the EPA’s scientists for years had overestimated the amount of nitrate, a pollutant found in chicken manure by 55 percent. Attorneys for Alt and the Farm Bureau entered the study as evidence in their lawsuit. The university’s scientists found that the EPA’s standards were based on old science and did not account for recent advances in genetics or modern farming techniques.
“It’s a systematic application that is putting farmers in a negative light,” Don Parish, the federation’s director of regulatory relations, told Fox News.
Said Don Shortridge of the Delaware Department of Agriculture, “[The] findings are significant because they represent the most current data available, based on tests of thousands of samples of actual manure, not estimates.”
This means that there was no scientific basis for the fines threated against Alt and other farmers.
EPA Backed Down
The EPA backed down and withdrew the fines against Alt after the University of Delaware study came to light. Stallman believes the agency’s move was designed to make Alt and her lawsuit go away. That tactic did not work.
“The EPA seems to have believed if it withdrew the order against Ms. Alt, the court would dismiss her lawsuit,” Stallman said. “The tactic failed because the court recognized EPA wasn’t changing its underlying legal position, but just trying to avoid having to defend that position.”
Alt said she refused to withdraw the suit because she was fighting for the rights of small farmers. Like Stallman, she was afraid the EPA would try to apply the flawed standards to other farms.
“My name may be on this case, but we’re doing this for all farmers, everywhere,” Alt told BayJournal.com. “If farmers can’t stick together, then there’s not much coming to us, is there?”
The Farm Bureau believes that the EPA would have been able to force all small farms to get wastewater permits if Alt had not won her lawsuit. Lois Alt’s case proves that you can fight the EPA — and win.