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Agriculture is Nation's Biggest Water Polluter but Usually Goes Unpunished

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page, Washington News page, and our Oregon News page.

Eight times in seven years, a state inspector asked Joe Lemire to keep his cattle off the banks of Pataha Creek. Why? Because they drop cow pies in the water. Cows trample pollution-filtering streamside plants. Cows mash the banks down so dirt gets into the stream, which had been targeted for cleanup by the government since the early 1990s.

The state even offered to pay for fences to keep the cows out of the stream.

But Lemire refused. He fired back that the state couldn't prove  his cows were polluting the stream, which cuts an undulating path deep into the volcanic plains of southeast Washington. When the state issued him a formal order in 2009 to keep the cows away from the creek, Lemire appealed to a state pollution-hearings board.

This fall his case heads to the Washington Supreme Court in what is shaping up as a pivotal decision about farmers' obligations to protect Northwest waterways. In a related struggle, Indian tribes are charging that farmers such as Lemire are killing salmon.

Lemire is a 69-year-old retiree raising cattle and hay. He's become a cause celebre in the countryside, where farm bureaus are soliciting residents to send money to cover the costs of his legal fight.

"I was guilty until proven innocent," Lemire said in an interview. "It makes it mandatory for me what's voluntary for other people."


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