The GOP’s dirty attack on rural America’s clean water

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Factory farm cattle dairy cow

House Republicans appear to have a new favorite pastime: Keeping Americans from ever being able to go to court. 

At a time of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, shocking gun violence in communities across America and Russian meddling in U.S. affairs, GOP lawmakers have instead chosen blocking access to the courts as their top priority. They should be ashamed, and Americans should be very, very alarmed.

{mosads}The assault began, earlier this year, with an all-out attack on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s rule prohibiting class action bans in financial contracts. Delivering an early holiday present to the likes of Wells Fargo and Equifax, Republicans called in Vice President Mike Pence to cast a tie-breaking vote that assures banks will never have to be held accountable in court for defrauding their own customers.


Now, in a moment of hubris shocking even by congressional standards, many of the same lawmakers are advocating that factory farms should be shielded from lawsuits even when they poison drinking water supplies. 

On Thursday, a House subcommittee held a hearing on a proposal that would make it impossible to bring a citizen suit against these mega farms — which often hold tens of thousands of animals — for mismanaging livestock waste and polluting water supplies, mostly in rural America.

The target of the GOP’s fury is the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), a last-ditch option for communities whose aquifers have been tainted by manure that seeps into the ground and makes its way into the wells that many rural districts rely on for drinking water.

The impact, when this happens, is devastating: the improperly managed livestock waste mixes feces, bodily fluids, nitrates, e.coli and pharmaceuticals into the water. Such contaminates increase the risk of blue baby syndrome, and have been associated with miscarriage, birth defects and cancer. Under the proposal from Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), families facing such threats would have no option to take the polluting factory farms to court. 

That’s right: The factory farm lobby is now so powerful on Capitol Hill that even if your family is poisoned by a factory farm, you may soon be unable to do anything about it. 

In a hearing last week, Newhouse and others insisted that anyone who tries to take these huge industrial farms to court is only in it for the money.

But that’s just a flat-out lie, and it also happens to be impossible. 

Under RCRA, no one impacted by the pollution is entitled to one cent. The law only provides for remedies that clean up the mess and give citizens access to clean water. And that’s exactly what happened in Yakima Valley, Washington, where the pollution from huge mega dairies made its way into residents’ wells and made the water not just undrinkable, but unsafe to bathe in, wash dishes with or even rinse off fruit and vegetables.

When the community banded together and sued under RCRA, the dairies were forced to take measures to prevent future pollution and to provide clean drinking water to the impacted families until their well water tested safe once again. 

Now, Newhouse wants to make that impossible by sealing off the courthouse doors for anyone trying to protect their drinking water in court. In fact, Newhouse he has insisted on pushing this proposal forward despite the fact that, earlier this year, the streets and homes of his own district were flooded with manure from nearby facilities. 

It’s hard to think of a clearer — or more audacious — example of politicians putting their campaign contributors ahead of their own constituents.

Lawmakers are calling their bill to kick rural Americans out of court the “Farm Regulatory Certainty Act.” But the only thing that’s certain is the danger to public health that this bill poses. In fact, it not only doesn’t regulate the solid animal waste produced by these corporate-owned “farms,” it effectively kills any attempt at regulating what can be dumped onto the ground — and allowed to seep into the water — in communities across the country.

The House is expected to mark up the bill and, if they can’t pass it on its own, sneak it into the upcoming farm bill. Doing either would be a betrayal to the rural communities that have become one of the chief voting blocs the GOP depends on and would put the health and safety of millions of Americans at risk.

Closing the courthouse doors is wrong. Politicizing clean water in order to curry favor with big dollar dairy donors is downright immoral.

Paul Bland is executive director of Public Justice, a national public interest law firm that pursues high-impact lawsuits to combat social and economic injustice, protect the Earth’s sustainability and challenge predatory corporate conduct and government abuses. Find him on Twitter @FPBland.

Tags clean water Dan Newhouse Mike Pence Paul Bland Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Rural America “Farm Regulatory Certainty Act
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