Supreme Court upholds Ecology's authority in Dayton rancher's case

The state's high court upheld the Department of Ecology’s authority to regulate cow manure in streams.

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WALLA WALLA — In a ruling against a Dayton rancher, the Washington state Supreme Court has upheld the Department of Ecology’s authority to regulate cow manure in streams.

The case involved Joseph Lemire, a cattle rancher in Columbia County whose property includes a portion of Pataha Creek.

Department of Ecology officials first identified conditions on Lemire’s ranch as a source of water pollution in 2003. Ecology staff members visited Lemire’s property four times from 2003 to 2008, and observed manure in the creek, overgrazed stream beds and cattle with unimpeded access to the creek, according to court documents.

Officials tried to work with Lemire to improve conditions and prevent further pollution. But after four more visits to the property in 2009, Ecology issued an order requiring Lemire to build fences around the creek and take other steps to reduce pollution.

Lemire challenged the order before the Pollution Control Hearings Board, which upheld the order. He then filed an administrative appeal in Columbia County Superior Court, which invalidated the order, holding that it was unsubstantiated and an unconstitutional “taking” of property.

Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling reversed the Superior Court’s decision, holding that Ecology has broad authority to regulate water pollution. The 8-1 decision said that Ecology was not required to rule out other sources of pollution in Pataha Creek, only to prove that the conditions in the creek were consistent with cattle having unrestricted access.

Ecology spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder said the department was pleased with the ruling but is also committed to working with agriculture and livestock.

“The court affirmed our ability to prevent pollution, and that’s an important part of our mission,” she said.

Toni Meacham, Lemire’s lawyer, said both she and her client were disappointed with the ruling.

“The majority opinion is just a rubber stamp on Ecology’s actions,” she said, adding that the regulatory authority granted to Ecology under this ruling was not the intent of the Legislature.

Meacham is meeting with Lemire on Monday to discuss his options. He has not decided if he will appeal the case further.

Rachel Alexander can be reached at rachelalexander@wwub.com or 509-526-8363.

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