Environmental groups allege stormwater discharges violating Clean Water Act

FERNDALE — Seattle-based Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and RE Sources for Sustainable Communities of Bellingham have filed a citizens’ lawsuit against Cargill Inc., which operates Ferndale Grain company, alleging that polluted stormwater has been released from the 3rd Avenue animal feed plant into Puget Sound.

According to submitted court documents, the lawsuit, filed on Aug. 7 in U.S. District Court for Western Washington, alleges that Cargill has been discharging stormwater with elevated levels of turbidity, zinc, copper, oil and pH every day during the last five years when there has been a precipitation of 0.1 inch or more.

The lawsuit alleges that stormwater from the granary is discharged to Schell Ditch and ultimately to the Nooksack River and Lummi River, which empty into Puget Sound. The plaintiffs are concerned about the potential effects of pollutants on aquatic species, wildlife and human health.

A spokesperson from Cargill Inc. said Friday, Sept. 1, that environmental stewardship is important to the company and that the action is taken seriously.

“Over the last several years, we have worked very closely with the state of Washington Department of Ecology and city officials in Ferndale to ensure our plant is compliant with local and state stormwater regulations,” according to a statement from the company. “We will continue to work with city and state officials, as well as the two organizations involved in this dispute, to resolve this matter.”

Whatcom Family Farmers said the lawsuit was an “attack on farmers.” In a news statement issued Aug. 29, the organization called on the Bellingham environmental group RE Sources to end its lawsuits against farmers and farm businesses.

“What concerns Whatcom Family Farmers is the Ferndale Grain operation is very small in the Cargill business but very significant for our farmers,” the statement said. “It may be to the company’s financial interest to determine that Whatcom and Skagit counties are simply not friendly places to do business and leave. Certainly, facing this kind of legal attack from a local group can lead to such a conclusion, particularly if this is not the only such attack.”

Farmers are frustrated that far more significant sources of pollution are overlooked by the plaintiffs such as zinc and copper pollution problems caused by urban runoff, the statement said.

“These environmental lawsuits are a far too common strategy of some environmental groups,” the farm organization said. “Teaming up with a Seattle law firm that specializes in this type of suit, they identify targets with deep pockets, conduct in-depth research into their regulatory compliance record and, if any discrepancies are found, they file a lawsuit.”

The plaintiffs are seeking penalties of up to $52,414 per day for alleged violations and fees for attorneys and expert witness fees.

The groups also ask that the defendant be ordered to remediate any environmental harm caused by the alleged discharges, immediately implement a plan for achieving compliance with the Clean Water Act at the Ferndale Grain facility and provide the plaintiffs with a copy of the plan.