Farm Businesses Should Not Have Been Granted the Right to Pollute

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A New York Times headline this month (Nov, 13) read: “The Problem is Clear: The Water is Filthy.” It should have read: “The Problem is Clear: Agriculture Granted the Right to Make the Water Filthy.”

The heartbreaking story is about entire towns in California’s Central Valley that are not able to drink tap water because it is contaminated with nitrogen and pesticides from farm businesses. Kids can’t drink it at home.  Schools buy bottled water and shut down their drinking fountains. Citizens and communities must spend millions to get water that is safe to drink.

The Times story said:

Seville, with a population of about 300, is one of dozens of predominantly Latino unincorporated communities in the Central Valley plagued for decades by contaminated drinking water. It is the grim result of more than half a century in which chemical fertilizers, animal wastes, pesticides and other substances have infiltrated aquifers, seeping into the groundwater and eventually into the tap. An estimated 20 percent of small public water systems in Tulare County are unable to meet safe nitrate levels, according to a United Nations representative.

But not once in the story does anyone suggest that farm businesses should do something to clean up the water they polluted.  Some new regulations have been proposed and are under consideration by California’s State Water Control Board, but they are not law. Some farming operations have recently come under new regulations, but they only apply to dairies. Most other farm businesses are not affected. There are other regulations on the books under California’s Clean Water Act, but Central Valley agriculture has long had a waiver from them.

Here’s the irony. Had the water contamination come from Pacific Gas and Electric, an oil refinery or any other industrial operation, the story would have been about making those businesses pay to provide clean drinking water and about lawsuits against them for polluting the public water supply. Why isn’t that the story? Because 40 years ago Congress granted farm businesses something they gave to no other kind of business – the unlimited right to pollute.

When it comes to industrial businesses, society took a stand that it has a right to clean air and water, but when it comes to agricultural enterprises, society declared that they have the right to pollute at will. It is far past time that Congress fix this so that agricultural operations begin to be treated like all other businesses.

This change would come too late for these residents and communities in the Central Valley, as would changes in California’s own laws, but not too late for the rest of the country. It should be a priority for both Washington and Sacramento.


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