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Yakima Valley dairy lawsuits: Who is the opposition?

Dave Wilkins Published on 11 March 2014

Plaintiffs in the Yakima Valley dairy lawsuits are veterans in the environmental-agriculture legal wars. Some might call them serial litigators.

The Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment (CARE) have both filed numerous lawsuits against agricultural targets over the past 17 years. Both non-profit organizations were founded in 1997.

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CARE is a local environmental group based in Outlook, Washington. The group has focused mainly on large livestock operations, or what it likes to call “factory farms.” It has made no secret of its desire to get rid of large dairy operations.

The group’s co-founder and president, Helen Reddout, became executive director of a national organization, the Dairy Education Alliance (DEA), in 2009.

“The DEA was formed as a natural outgrowth of the work being done around the country by people whose communities have been devastated by the impacts from industrial-sized dairy operations,” the organization says on its website.

CFS is a national non-profit group headquartered in Washington D.C. It also has offices in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon.

CFS represents nearly 245,000 members nationwide, including about 10,000 in Washington state, according to the group’s attorneys.

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CFS’s main focus has been opposing genetically engineered crops. It sued the USDA in an attempt to halt the planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets and Roundup Ready alfalfa. It ultimately failed to stop either; both crops are still being grown.

CFS was a major supporter of a voter initiative in Washington state last year that would have required foods containing genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled. The initiative failed, with about 55 percent of voters rejecting it.

CFS has also been a strong opponent of “factory” farms.

“Factory farms devour energy and water resources and harm workers, animals and nearby communities by poisoning water and releasing hazardous air pollutants,” the group says on its website. One of its many publications is called Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture.

CFS reported $2.8 million in contributions and grants in 2011, up from $1.9 million the year before, according to IRS filings.

In addition, environmental groups like CFS stand to cash in big when they win a lawsuit. They routinely seek attorney fees and other related legal expenses such as expert witness fees. Because of the complexity of these cases, those payments can really add up.

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When environmentalists win a case against a government agency, it’s taxpayers who foot the bill.

Karen Budd-Falen, a Wyoming attorney whose clients are mostly farmers and ranchers, has tried to track the payments.

She found that the government paid out more than $4.7 billion in taxpayer money to environmental law firms between 2003 and 2007 – and that’s just from the lawsuits she tracked. The total amount was certainly far more, she says.

And it appears there has been an increase in environmental litigation and government payment of attorney fees in recent years.

“There has actually been an increase in payment of attorneys fees under the Obama administration,” Budd-Falen says.

But she has no idea what the total amount is because the government doesn’t keep track.

“The Justice Department and Treasury don’t have to report these payments,” Budd-Falen says.

Repeated attempts to require simple reporting of payments and recipients have all failed, Budd-Falen says.

“We can’t even get that out of Congress,” she says. “It has to be political if we’re having this much trouble getting simple transparency. I have to believe there’s a reason people don’t want us to really know.”

In the Yakima Valley case, it will be dairymen and their supporters that foot the bill if environmentalists win.

It’s imperative that the activists are defeated, says Kevin Abernathy, director of regulatory affairs for the California-based Milk Producers Council.

“Any time they win a case and get their legal fees paid for, it’s a few more dollars in their pockets to go after someone else,” he says. “We can’t put any more dollars in their pockets to go after anybody else.” PD

Dave Wilkins is a freelance writer based in Twin Falls, Idaho.

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