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Water | Environment

Rancher Brings Pollution Battle to WA Supreme Court

OLYMPIA, Wash. – The Washington Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday that will decide how much control environmental regulators have over pollution that runs off people’s land and into streams.

Cowboy hats and wrangler jeans could be seen among the business suits normally worn in the Washington Supreme Court building. Around 80 ranchers and environmentalists packed into the courtroom. They traveled from around the state: Spokane, Dayton, and Puget Sound. At issue: Can the Washington Department of Ecology make a rancher fence-in a stream that runs through his land?

The Department says cattle cross Pataha Creek in southeastern Washington. The state says their feces pollutes the water.

Mary Sue Wilson is with the Attorney General’s office.

“This is a clear case that justifies asking the landowner to limit the access of his animals to our waters of the state to avoid downstream pollution impacts,” Wilson says.

Rancher Joe Lemire disagrees. He is suing the state of Washington to stop it from trying to fence in his ranch. Lemire says his cows’ manure isn’t enough to harm water quality. He says that a fence would render his land unusable.

Lemire says his ranch is a small drop in the bucket.

“I think all of the citizens in Washington will have a lot to lose with this enforcement stuff that these people will be empowered with,” Lemire said.

Some Supreme Court justices asked lawyers about property rights. Others wanted to know more about how the law regulates pollution. Does the law treat pollution from animal waste the same way it deals with pollution caused by people’s septic tanks and sewage systems?

The case drew a standing-room-only crowd. That’s because there’s so much at stake for ranchers and for the way the state regulates runoff pollution. The Columbia County Superior Court recently decided in favor of Lemire.

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