Cargill Inc. has tentatively reached a settlement with two environmental groups that accused the company of letting polluted rainwater run off its animal feed plant in Ferndale, Wash.
The settlement has not been finalized, but a federal judge dismissed the suit Nov. 28 at the request of the two sides. The parties have not disclosed the terms of the proposed settlement, which comes less than four months after the suit was filed.
“It’s been a very cooperative discussion,” said Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, one of the two groups that sued Cargill. “We’ve been on the settlement track from the beginning of the process,”
Puget Soundkeeper and Re Sources for Sustainable Communities alleged that Cargill, the country’s largest privately owned company, released stormwater that was too cloudy and had too much zinc and copper. The stormwater went into a ditch, then larger waterways and eventually Puget Sound, according to the suit.
The alleged violations of the Clean Water Act were based on water-quality reports submitted by the company to the Washington Department of Ecology. The lawsuit alleged the violations occurred over several years and sought penalties of up to $52,414 a day. Cargill could afford to pay a significant penalty, according to the lawsuit.
Wilke said he expects that under the settlement Cargill will pay attorney fees and fund an environmental project overseen by the California-based Rose Foundation.
The foundation acts as a trustee in cases in which environmental lawsuits, including those pressed by Puget Soundkeeper, have led to a payout by the defendant. Wilke said the project has not yet been picked.
Wilke also said he expects the settlement to lead to operational changes at Ferndale Grain.
A Cargill spokesman said in an email that the company decided it was in everyone’s interest to settle.
“Over the last several years, we have worked very closely with the state Washington Department of Ecology and city officials in Ferndale to help ensure our plant is compliant with local and state stormwater regulations, and we will continue to operate in an environmentally responsible way,” the spokesman stated.
The lawsuit was filed in August and provoked criticism from Save Family Farming and Whatcom Family Farmers, two related advocacy groups.
Save Family Farming director Gerald Baron said the groups had no contact with Cargill, but were concerned about whether the lawsuit would jeopardize the Ferndale plant’s future. “It is a key part of our infrastructure,” he said.
Baron said the suit followed a pattern of litigation that extracts payments from businesses that supply farmers. A settlement costs far less than potential penalties or prolonged litigation, he said.
“This settlement is totally predictable because this is a business decision,” Baron said.
“Our concern is this is a money-raising method by environmental groups,” he said. “We want to work with environment groups in a positive way, but this is not the way to do it.”
Wilke said the farm groups mischaracterized the reason for the lawsuit, which he said was brought to protect Puget Sound. He said Cargill took the complaints seriously.
“It (the settlement) had nothing to do with the messaging we heard from Whatcom Family Farmers,” Wilke said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik signed the order dismissing the lawsuit, though either party can reopen the case within 60 days if the settlement isn’t finalized. Lawyers involved in the case notified the court there were no issues for the judge to rule on, according to court records.
Puget Soundkeeper is the plaintiff in several other pending lawsuits in federal court and has reached settlements in other cases.
In one of the larger settlements, grain exporter Louis Dreyfus Co. agreed last year to pay $699,000 for an environmental project and $403,000 in legal fees. The settlement came after a judge ruled there was evidence that the company had spilled grain into Elliott Bay in Seattle.
Cargill reported $107 billion in revenue in 2016.