Judge says five visits were insufficient to reach conclusion
By DAN WHEAT
DAYTON, Wash. -- A rancher says it will take time to feel at home on his ranch after winning a lawsuit against the Washington state Department of Ecology.
"I'd like to pursue what I started in 1990, to have a nice herd of cattle and enjoy my retirement," said Joe Lemire, 68, while noting he has more issues to raise if the state appeals.
"I hope they leave us alone," he said. "We're not doing anything wrong, never have."
Columbia County Superior Court Judge William D. Acey heard arguments July 7 and found insufficient evidence for Ecology to have issued an order in 2009 claiming Lemire's cattle had "substantial potential to pollute" Pataha Creek and ordering that he fence it off, said Toni Meacham, Lemire's attorney.
Ecology officials alleged the creek was polluted above and below Lemire's ranch and that they've found manure next to the creek, uncontrolled cattle access, overgrazing and erosion near the creek, all putting Lemire in violation of state law.
Lemire disputed Ecology's allegations, saying he follows best management practices recognized by state and federal agencies.
The judge declared Ecology's order null and void, saying it was based on just five site visits in four years that were insufficient to reach the conclusions it reached, Meacham said.
Water samples were not taken, so it came down to an Ecology official's word against Lemire's, Meacham said.Fencing would have kept Lemire from using 7 acres of his 265-acre ranch, which the judge found to be a taking of property without compensation.
"The message here is Ecology cannot run rampant over agriculture. They have to base their orders on evidence and sound science," Meacham said.
Ecology is discussing its options, said Ivy Anderson, an assistant state attorney general representing the department in the case.
The judge held that there was no direct evidence that Lemire's cattle caused any pollution, Anderson said.
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association in Ellensburg, attended the court hearing. He said the ruling has important ramifications in more than a dozen other cases in Lincoln, Klickitat and Garfield counties, where ranches have received notices from Ecology.
He said four of the five site visits were in February, the worst month of the year.
The ranch is 15 miles northeast of Dayton.