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Focus on Agriculture

For the week of August 13, 2012

West Virginia Farmer Won’t Go Down Without a Fight

By Tracy Grondine

West Virginians are nothing if not hardworking, honest and humble people. So, when West Virginia farmer Lois Alt was told by the Environmental Protection Agency that she needed a discharge permit for her non-discharging poultry farm, she was dumbfounded.

Alt’s farm is immaculate. She’s even won several environmental stewardship awards. But, when EPA paid her a visit last year, they told her they spotted some feathers and dust on the ground in her farm yard and saw a splotch of litter outside her chicken houses – things that exist on all animal farms. But, according to EPA, because of these everyday farm elements, runoff from Alt’s farm should be regulated as a Clean Water Act discharge.

Alt told the inspector that if there was something she was doing wrong to let her know and she would correct it immediately. But, to this date, she hasn’t heard a peep from EPA, except that she needs to get a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. And until she does, she’s looking at a fine of $37,500 per day.

“It’s very, very intimidating,” says Alt, who worries about having to mortgage – and possibly even losing – her farm. Alt believes that, as one of the larger poultry farms in her state, if she’s intimidated into applying for a permit, most other West Virginia poultry farmers will feel compelled to do the same.

That’s why she’s brought a lawsuit against EPA. Although she’s a West Virginia farmer, the issues raised in her lawsuit are national in scope and affect all livestock and poultry farmers. The American Farm Bureau Federation, as well as the West Virginia Farm Bureau, has asked the court to join the suit.

The lawsuit challenges just how much power EPA has to sweep into the Clean Water Act permitting system. AFBF hopes it will be a case that generates positive law to help other livestock and poultry farmers nationwide that face the same kind of intimidating EPA inspections and enforcement efforts.

“A farm is a farm. It’s not a laboratory,” says AFBF General Counsel Ellen Steen. But, “EPA has come up with an interpretation of the federal Clean Water Act that says basically if you’re a farm you’re going to be regulated if you have enough animals.”

So, that’s why it will be a real setback to all livestock and poultry farmers if the lawsuit doesn’t go Alt’s way.

But for Alt, who embodies some of the most prevalent characteristics of West Virginians – a strong sense of justice and an independent will – the fight’s not over. As they say in West Virginia, “Montani Semper Liberi,” or mountaineers are always free.


Tracy Taylor Grondine, a proud West Virginian at heart, is director of media relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.