The United States Supreme Court rejection of a petition to hear a case on Indiana’s Right to Farm Act last week is the latest development in an ongoing legal battle between environmental and agriculture groups. Both sides are looking at the upcoming state legislative session to push for policies helping those they represent.
The five-year legal battle focused on confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, and their effect on nearby residential property values and quality of life. The Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic joined as co-counsel with the Hoosier Environmental Council on the Supreme Court petition representing two Hendricks County couples who sued a neighboring hog farm in 2015 saying it is making it difficult for them to eat or sleep.
“For farmers across the state, they get very great comfort in knowing that if they if they do things, right, that they should enjoy the protections, the Right to Farm Act and be able to defeat nuisance actions,“ said Chris Braun, a lawyer with Plews Shadley Racher & Braun who represented the Hendricks County CAFO owners.
Kim Ferraro is a lawyer with the Hoosier Environmental Council and represented the residents living near the CAFO who filed the complaint.
“Obviously we're saddened by the decision. The filing with the U.S. Supreme Court we knew was a long shot,” said Ferraro, referring to the thousands of petitions rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. “The fact that the court didn't take the case, does not mean that the petition didn't have merit.”
Ferraro said the challenge with proving negligence in this case is due to a lack of regulations on CAFOs.
“It's hard to prove negligence when the regulations that apply to a factory farm don't in any way, limit the air emissions that a CAFO produces,” she said. “So while the CAFO is compliant with regulations, those regulations only limit, or address, manure management and water quality impacts.”
Ferraro said the group will push for legislation that adds air quality standards to CAFOs.
“There's certainly a demand for change [and] we're going to continue to try to grow that movement and convince Indiana General Assembly to enact legislation that would better regulate CAFOs from an environmental perspective – specifically to place limits on air emissions and odors, more responsible siting of CAFOs, and ultimately to amend the Right to Farm Act so that it doesn't strip property rights,” Ferraro said.
Ferraro said there are lessons learned from this case that she will take with her for future cases including one she’s currently working on.
Braun, the attorney for the CAFO owners, said years of legal work on this case has been costly financially and emotionally on the CAFO owners. He filed a counterclaim against the groups who brought the lawsuit.
“You can't just continue on suing farmers around the state on these CAFOs and then once the case is over, like OK, well, I'll go on,” he said. “I mean, you put our clients through five years of incredible stress.”
Braun said there are plans to push for amending the Right to Farm Act to hold organizations like the Hoosier Environmental Council financially responsible for lawsuits he says target farmers.
“I think that would be a tremendous benefit, and it would deter a lot of the frivolous actions and lawsuits,” he said. “And again, if there's a bad actor farmer out there, and they don't get the protection of the Right to Farm Act, you know what, have at them.”
Braun said lawyers across the country have reached out following the results from this case after Indiana’s Right to Farm Act was able to pass constitutional scrutiny.
CLARIFICATION: Due to a transcription error, a previous version of this story conflated CAFOs with cases and siting with sighting. For the purpose of clarity, it has been changed.