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The Planet
Hog Suits, Freeway Challenges Set Legal Precedents

By Jenny Coyle

Feedlots and freeways were the targets of an extensive litigation campaign launched in 2000 by the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program, including some cutting-edge cases that establish a model for future legal work.

These cases were part of the program's newly expanded mission: to support the Club's national priority campaigns by developing a strategy to complement the work being done by grassroots activists. The focus was on the Challenge to Sprawl and Clean Water/CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations) campaigns.

The law program will continue with this work in the coming year, and will add the End Commercial Logging on Federal Lands Campaign to its list of priorities. Also, three attorneys will be hired, one of whom will focus on environmental justice.

In 2000, attorneys around the country filed lawsuits on behalf of the Sierra Club on a full array of environmental issues, while the in-house team of lawyers handled most cases targeting sprawl and animal factories.

Campaign leaders, grassroots activists and environmental lawyers helped the team determine the best legal approach. "Sometimes just giving notice of our intention to file suit gets the results we're looking for," said Alex Levinson, director of the Club's law program.

One objective is forcing corporate animal factories to get Clean Water Act permits.

In June, the Club filed a lawsuit against Seaboard Corp. and Seaboard Farms for violations of the act at its 27,000-hog facility in Dorman, Okla. In October 1999, more than 160,000 gallons of wastewater spilled into waterways near the Dorman facility in one month's time.

The clean-water concerns are obvious, but there's also a clean-air approach to such cases. In November, 2000, the Club announced it intends to file another suit against Seaboard, this time for violations of the federal Superfund law, because the Dorman site has failed to report the enormous amount of ammonia-gas pollution coming from the site every day.

"Ammonia is designated as a hazardous substance under Superfund law, and the Dorman operation emits about 1,000 pounds of it per day, or 182 tons per year," said Pat Gallagher, Sierra Club senior attorney. "Our suit will be only the second such suit ever filed in this country."

Meanwhile, working with Mackinac (Michigan) Chapter leaders, Sierra Club staff attorney Aaron Isherwood hit five dairies with notices of intent to sue over Clean Water Act violations. At a press conference announcing the notices, Martha Lore, vice chair of the Club's West Michigan Group, said, "These operations are no friend to Michigan's families. They overwhelm their neighbors with the stench of cow excrement and poison our streams."

Just before the year ended, the Club filed suit against one of the dairies, Walnutdale Farms, Inc., whose 1,000-head operation has more than once spilled manure into tributaries of the Rabbit River. In a 1999 spill, a waterway next to the dairy became turbid with manure, reeked of animal waste and contained live bloodworms.

In California, plans for a 47,000-cow dairy near Bakersfield were halted the day after the Sierra Club filed a legal brief in July. In this case the suit was against the Kings County Board of Supervisors, which had approved the environmental impact report for the dairy.

On the sprawl front, the Club's legal team is targeting major highway projects that threaten to open up pristine lands to sprawl - and violate air-quality standards.

In perhaps the most cutting-edge effort by the law program, the Southern Nevada Group is challenging the Federal Highway Administration for failing to disclose the increased cancer risk associated with the U.S. 95 highway project in Las Vegas. The highway would plow through some of the oldest residential neighborhoods in northwest Las Vegas, and would condemn part of an elementary school property.

"Sierra Club experts will show that, according to a new scientific study, as many as one new case of cancer per 1,000 people living along the proposed freeway could be attributed to the air toxins spewing out of tailpipes from vehicles on the road," Gallagher said.

Using a different angle, the legal team challenged the proposed Grand Parkway in Houston, Texas, another beltway for the city. It would run along the Katy Prairie, an important wetland and waterfowl area. Experts retained by the Club convinced the Houston Transportation Agency staff that there was no legitimate need for the highway.

"The transportation agency board resorted to justifying the highway as a hurricane evacuation route. If that's the reason for it, they should put a gate across it and just open it when it's needed," Gallagher quipped.

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