Editorial – October 2013
Back to the courtroom
By Marg Land
My mother always wanted me to become a lawyer. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but given the current litigious climate of North America, it just seems to keep popping up.
In light of the numerous civil suit news items and press releases that cross my desk every week, I’ve been thinking Mom was right. The only people making any money in today’s climate of animosity and disenfranchisement are lawyers.
The latest lawsuit information to catch my eye came in late August with an announcement that a coalition of environmental groups had filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), challenging the agency’s withdrawal of a proposed rule – the Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 308 – that would have allowed the EPA to collect basic information from large-scale livestock operations. According to the organizations – the Center for Food Safety, the Environmental Integrity Project, Food & Water Watch, the Humane Society of the United States, and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement – “the information at issue is critical to the EPA’s ability to protect waterways from pollutants produced by factory farms, one of the country’s largest sources of water pollution.”
The press release goes on to quote lawyers, chief counsels, senior attorneys and executive directors from the plaintiff organizations as they badmouth large-scale livestock agriculture, describing the farms as “one of the largest sources of pollution threatening our nation’s rivers, streams and bays” and “the nation’s largest and dirtiest operations.”
The largest and dirtiest operations in the U.S.? The largest sources of water pollution in the country? I beg to differ.
In early August, the Port of Tacoma plus two of its contractors agreed to pay $500,000 in fines and spend more than $3 million to restore wetlands in the Puget Sound. In 2008, it was discovered the port had hired contractors to raze four acres of wetland in a bid to eradicate vineyard snails from the area. They did not have the necessary CWA permits required to work in the wetlands.
Just this past July, the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) – a public utility owned by the City of San Antonio – agreed to pay $2.6 million in civil penalties and spend more than $1 billion to upgrade its sewer systems after it was discovered the system had overflowed 2,200 times, releasing 23 million gallons of raw sewage into local waterways, between 2006 and 2012.
In the same month, the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in North Carolina agreed to pay $300,000 in fines and bring the local sewer system into compliance after numerous sewage overflows.
“Sewage overflows are a significant problem in the Southeast because of inadequate and aging infrastructure,” said Stan Meiburg, acting EPA regional administrator at the time, adding the area had “long-standing sewage overflow problems.”
During this same two-month time span, the federal environmental watchdog posted no reports on charges against any farming operations violating the CWA. That’s not to say there were no manure spills or lagoon overflows that occurred during that time period, but none were at the level to require federal fines.
Based on this information, it would appear that ignorance and raw human sewage are doing more to damage U.S. waterways and communities than large-scale livestock operations are. Perhaps it’s time environmental groups thought more about what happens after they flush their toilets before flushing more federal funds into the pockets of lawyers through nuisance lawsuits.
The complaint against the U.S. EPA is available at: