Washington farm groups were on the winning side when a judge ruled in July that the state Department of Ecology doesn’t have to refund $14 million it got from the Environmental Protection Agency since 2011 to protect waterways.
U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour in Seattle dismissed a claim by Northwest Environmental Advocates that Ecology doesn’t adequately regulate farms and therefore wasn’t entitled to federal grants.
In a written ruling, Coughenour said that Northwest lacked standing to press the claim because its members hadn’t been hurt by the grants. The Portland-based group has asked the judge to reconsider.
If left in place, Coughenour’s ruling settles one aspect of a lawsuit filed by Northwest against the EPA. A broader claim — that the EPA has failed to make Ecology adopt plans that protect water from farming and logging — remains unsettled.
Ecology distributes EPA grants to tribes, nonprofit groups and local governments for projects such as restoring wetlands and building fences to keep livestock from streams. Northwest argued that cutting off future grants and seeking refunds would motivate Ecology to adopt agricultural “best-management practices.”
The Washington Farm Bureau and Washington Cattlemen’s Association have joined the lawsuit as allies of the EPA and Ecology. The farm groups and government agencies said cutting off federal funding would harm the environment.
According to court records, Ecology has received $14 million from the EPA since 2011 for the clean-water projects. Almost all of the money has been spent or committed, according to Ecology.
If forced to refund the money, Ecology would have had to either get it back from different organizations, get lawmakers to appropriate money or cut spending on future environmental projects.
Ecology has convened a task force to identify the best ways to keep farms from polluting water. The agency says the outcome will be voluntary guidelines, not mandatory best-management practices.