Washington, DC – Today, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY-21) cosponsored the Farm Regulatory Certainty Act – bipartisan legislation to protect North Country farmers from burdensome and unclear regulations.
“Agriculture is the backbone of our North Country economy,” said Congresswoman Stefanik. “When I travel the district meeting with our farmers, they often speak of the difficulty they are having navigating mountains and mountains of red tape from our federal government. We must help our North Country farmers thrive, which is why I have cosponsored this important legislation to help reduce regulatory uncertainty while also encouraging better stewardship of our environment.”
Background: In the last several years, a disturbing trend has emerged in the American dairy and livestock industries regarding waste management. The Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), a law enacted by Congress in 1976 to govern the safe disposal of solid wastes in sanitary landfills, has been misused to inappropriately target agriculture, specifically dairy and livestock producers. In several instances farmers suspected of contributing to high nutrient levels in nearby water supplies have been approached by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or state agencies to determine the source of nitrates and develop plans to reduce levels. Activists have then obtained that information through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and other means, and used the information to pursue citizen suits under RCRA against these livestock producers.
RCRA was never intended to govern farmers. There are other water statutes farmers are subject to, and even EPA’s original RCRA regulations promulgated in 1979 included exceptions for agricultural byproducts returned to the soil as nutrients. However in 2015, a federal judge in Washington State found several dairies culpable of “open dumping” under RCRA, deciding that nitrates do constitute a “solid waste,” despite the clear intent of Congress and the EPA’s own regulations. Disappointingly, EPA has neither denounced this misguided ruling, nor ruled out promulgating new regulations based on this activist judicial decision. We are deeply troubled that this precedent not only opens livestock and dairy producers to unintended regulation under RCRA, but any farmer who uses nutrients on their crops may also be pursued for over-application. This would place our nation’s entire agricultural community in a gray-area of legal uncertainty.
Further, this unlawful application of RCRA on agriculture is punishing farmers for proactively trying to become better environmental stewards. This will only provide a disincentive for further proactive efforts. This will put farmers on the defensive, and will result in slowed efforts to identify and treat water sources in the future.
The Farm Regulatory Certainty Act: The purposes of the Farm Regulatory Certainty Act are three fold. First, it will reaffirm Congress’ intent regarding the inappropriateness of subjecting agricultural byproducts to RCRA. It will also codify EPA regulations regarding the treatment of agricultural byproducts under RCRA. Finally, RCRA currently offers partial protection from citizen suits if a state or the federal government is already litigating or prosecuting a farmer, or if the farmer is making a diligent effort to comply with a state or federal order regarding clean-up efforts. However, this ‘double-jeopardy’-like protection is incomplete, and only offers partial protection under one-half of the citizens suits section under RCRA. This legislation will complete that protection, and prevent farmers from being targeted twice if they are already engaged in legal action or are making a diligent attempt to work with the state or federal government to address water quality issues.
The Goal: The goal of the Farm Regulatory Certainty Act is to create a legal environment where farmers have a solid understanding of which laws govern their activities and which don’t. The goal of environmental stewardship should be to help farmers improve water quality and reduce their environmental footprint, not subject them to lawsuits and put them out of business for proactive compliance. We should be creating a culture where farmers can feel comfortable working with state and federal regulatory entities, not fearful and resistant to punitive measures, slowing efforts to identify and treat water sources.