Congress discusses changes to a longstanding law on agricultural waste

Aaron Edelstein

WASHINGTON- On Capitol Hill, regulators are discussing a bill that could change the agriculture industry and the way it operates for good, and Environmental activists are thrilled. Farmers are too.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is a law designed to regulate the nation’s industrial waste, and requires specific dumping of certain solid waste. Basically, it can’t be dumped and forgotten about. The problem is, the RCRA isn’t concerned with a large portion of waste, reusable waste. The law is only concerned about waste that is bad for the environment, and some lawmakers want to change that.

A hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce committee was held to discuss the proposed Farm Regulatory Certainty Act, which would expand the RCRA to include regulating the dumping of reusable waste and encourage the manufacturing of fertilizer and other products. The chairman of the Environmental subcommittee, John Shikmus (R-Il) began the hearing with an opening statement, discussing how important farming is to his district, and the need to rethink the RCRA, saying that “Congress specifically addressed agricultural operations and clearly intended to include certain agricultural practices, but at the time Congress was focused on waste disposal practices that resulted in open dumping. In the legislative history of RCRA the Committee specifically noted that RCRA was not intended to apply to an agricultural operation that returns manure or crop residue to the soil as for fertilizer or soil conditioner.”

Shikmus had a point. In 1976, when the RCRA was passed, recycling wasn’t even on their radar, and the law needs an update. Over the past few years, there have been complaints of polluted water from communities, as referenced in a letter Shikmus read from Adaptive Seeds, a group from Oregon, saying they are disappointed in the difficulty for citizens to stop agricultural businesses from  inappropriately dumping their waste into the water supply and the ground.

Support for the bill has wide support from smaller agricultural businesses, and the Washington State Dairy Federation, which represents over 400 family farms across the entire state said that the “language in the bill before you will foster a more secure and cooperative relationship between dairy families and the state and federal agencies that provide oversight,” and that If there is an error or allegation being addressed with a state or federal regulator, then the farms should not face a citizen lawsuit if they are working in good faith with the regulatory agencies.”

The problem lies with the fact that currently, when there is a dumping issue, citizens are the ones taking it to court in a civil suit. The farmers aren’t breaking any law and so state and federal regulators are hesitant to get involved. The problem is that a civil suit can be more expensive and more time consuming than dealing with those regulators.

This bill is tricky. One one hand, it fixes the problem and makes a solid law about dumping waste that could be reused, making the environmental activists happy, but on the other hand, it actually makes it harder to litigate with those farmers when they dump that waste instead, making many of the famers happy.

This is a very real issue for many people though, while the farmers dump waste into the ground, the water supply becomes contaminated with nitrates, making it dangerous to drink and forcing people in the community to buy bottled water, something many can’t do.

“Our communities want to solve the issues of contaminate without having to sue,” Estela Garica, a man from Arvi, Ca wrote to the committee.  For many community members in these towns where this remains a growing issue, this bill is a double edged sword. By continuing to dump the farmers would be breaking federal law, but with how slow Washington can work, its likely nothing will come of it. Plus, they won’t be able to sue as easily.

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