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Manure and nitrates in United States courts

Most people are aware of the lawsuit currently going on between the Des Moines Water Works utility and three county drainage districts upstream of its water supply over nitrates in in Des Moines drinking water.  A lesser known case, but equally important for agriculture, is the one decided against Cow Palace LLC, a dairy farm, by the Eastern District Court of Washington State.  There is a well-written article by several Minnesota lawyers and economists here that discusses the implications of these two cases.  Take a look.

My understanding of the law is about on par with my understanding of astrophysics, so a lot of the “legalese” is above my head.  But a few lines really stood out to me that relate to the Cow Palace/Dairy Farm case, manure application, and environmental risk.

“The RCRA agricultural-waste exemption was limited by the court, which held that manure is to be regulated as a solid waste similar to garbage if it is ‘handled and used in a manner that its usefulness as a fertilizer is eliminated’…In the Dairy Farm case, the court essentially shifted the burden to the farm or livestock operation to show that manure is only being applied to land as a beneficial fertilizer to be used by crops in the root zone.”

A little background on the Cow Palace/Dairy Farm case: a dairy farm operator in Washington State was sued by two community groups that claimed the farm was violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which prohibits the disposal of solid waste to the land.  Manure is generally considered exempt from this law because it’s used as a fertilizer source on the land.  However, what the court did by ruling in favor of the community groups was suggest there are limits to that exemption, and that those limits relate to whether the manure application was intended to fertilize crops or to dispose of manure.

Here are my thoughts on what this court case means for farmers:     

1. It’s putting the burden on farmers to show they’re applying nutrients in manure at agronomic rates- no more than what the crop will be taking up.  Cow Palace/Dairy Farm got in trouble because they were applying manure to empty out the lagoon, not to apply to cropland at agronomic rates.

2. It’s really important to keep records of manure applications and manure analysis results so you can demonstrate you were applying at agronomic rates.

3. It points out the legal importance of following good manure management practices.  Practices have to be defensible, and the best way to do this is by following University research-based guidelines and replicated on-farm research.  University of Minnesota publications and fact sheets regarding manure application can be found here.

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