Court Affirms State Environmental Agency Must Enforce Clean Water Law

TALLAHASSEE (March 2, 2005) -- A Florida appeals court today ruled that industrial style dairies can no longer dump manure-polluted waste into state waters and directed the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to start enforcing water protection laws. The ruling, by the 1st District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee, affirmed the decision made by the Leon County, Florida, Circuit Court in March 2004.

"This decision, which now has been affirmed by two courts, means that tens of thousands of Floridians soon will have cleaner water to drink, and safer water in which to fish and swim," said Linda Young, southeast regional director for the Clean Water Network and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Young and three environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) filed the lawsuit in May 2001. The groups -- Save Our Suwannee, Manasota-88 and the Conservation Alliance of St. Lucie County -- took legal action after years of unsuccessfully trying to persuade Florida DEP to enforce water pollution laws that prohibit dairies from dumping untreated animal waste into surface and groundwater.

"These industrial dairy feedlots are serious sources of pollutants that threaten drinking water supplies throughout Florida," said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. "This decision makes clear that Florida DEP and the dairy industry must take the law seriously and take immediate steps to reduce pollution from animal waste to ensure clean water for every community."

Today's district court ruling upheld the March 2004 ruling by Leon County Circuit Court Judge Ralph Smith, who told the Florida environmental agency, "DEP has accorded the dairy industry a degree of control over the resolution of water pollution problems posed by [concentrated animal feeding operations] that is not contemplated by the statutory requirement of this state, and which undermines a proper regulatory system required to abate water pollution and conserve and protect the natural resources of this state."

The judge ordered DEP to immediately require all industrial style dairy farms to either obtain permits or demonstrate that the facility is not discharging into the water. He also enjoined the DEP from relying on loopholes in Florida's Premier Pollution Laws that allowed DEP to avoid issuing permits. There are more than 40 industrial style dairies, defined as "concentrated animal feeding operations," in Florida, according to DEP.

Today's ruling requires DEP to comply with federal clean water laws and issue water discharge permits for dairy operations.

"Florida has run out of excuses," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "It now has to keep cow manure out of Florida's waterways, off Florida's beaches, and out of Florida's drinking water supplies."

DEP and the dairies have vowed to push for legislation that will change Florida law and allow for more pollution from dairies and other big industrial pollution sources. A bill was filed in the last two weeks of the 2004 legislative session that would have undermined Judge Smith's decision, but it failed to pass.

"If DEP and the dairies try to weaken Florida law again this year, we are ready to deal with that," said Young. "The citizens of Florida have spoken, the courts have spoken, and we are not about to back down now."