ALEC, Big Agriculture Seek to Undermine Nuisance Laws in Georgia
Photograph of Damon Mullis from https://www.ogeecheeriverkeeper.org/
(APN) ATLANTA — Legislation currently pending before the Georgia Legislature, HB 545, the “Right to Farm Act of 2020,” seeks to make it more difficult for Georgia families to seek recovery in court for harms that they have suffered from nearby concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO’s).
HB 545 was introduced on February 28, 2019, the first year of the 2019-2020 Session of the Georgia General Assembly. It was sponsored by State Rep. Tom McCall (R-Elberton), Chairman of the Georgia House Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee, who is also a farmer.
The proposed bill incorporates some language from the model Right to Farm Act promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC):
Georgia already has a Right to Farm Act codified as O.C.G.A. 41-1-7. Georgia’s current proposal, the Right to Farm Act of 2020, makes several amendments to Georgia’s existing Right to Farm Act, while also adding some of ALEC’s current model provisions.
HB 545, first, would limit nuisance lawsuits to property owners, prohibiting residential tenants from making nuisance claims. It would limit such lawsuits to property owners located within five miles of the source of the alleged nuisance.
It would require a nuisance action to be brought within two years of the beginning of the operation of the farm causing the nuisance. It would require actions to be brought within two years after a nuisance occurs, as opposed to the four years statute of limitations under Georgia’s existing law.
The proposal would also exempt several substantial changes to farming operations from being deemed as the beginning of an operation for the purposes of the Act.
In addition, HB 545 would allow farms or farming industries to seek to collect court costs and litigation expenses including attorney fees for “frivolous” or “malicious” claims.
The bill passed out of the House Committee on March 01, 2019; and then out of the full Georgia House of Representatives, on March 07, 2019, in a vote on 107 to 58. The vote was mostly along party lines, with most if not all Democrats opposing the bill, and most if not all Republicans supporting the bill.
The bill was sent to the Senate, and passed out of Senate Committee on March 21, 2019, but did not come up for a Senate vote.
This year, it was recommitted to the Senate, and passed again out of Senate Committee on February 05, 2020.
At the hearings of the Georgia Senate Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee, State Sen. Zahra Karinshak (D-Duluth) questioned whether there was a pressing need to change Georgia’s existing Right to Farm law, according to news reports.
One farmer, Jody Sullivan, who owns four poultry houses in Gordon County, told the Committee he has fallen victim to nuisance suits, according to a report by the Georgia Capitol Beat News Service.
Sullivan said he has spent thousands of dollars defending himself from several suits filed by non-farming neighbors after he began raising chickens in 2015.
“It’s getting hard for us to keep going,” Sullivan said, the news service reported.
Proponents of the bill also pointed to the recent 3.25 million dollar nuisance award granted to families living in North Carolina in connection with the odors, flies, particles, and other harms associated with CAFO’s maintaining giant hog manure “lagoons” and spraying manure near to their homes.
But Damon Mullis, Executive Director of Ogeechee Riverkeeper, disputes that there is a need for this bill.
‘The Farm Bureau lobby and the big agriculture lobby and the people pushing this bill have this narrative that Georgia farmers are being inundated with frivolous lawsuits; and that environmental groups and trial lawyers are out trying to damage Georgia farms and farmers for whatever reason,” Mullis told Atlanta Progressive News.
“If you look at the evidence, you really have a hard time finding any of these frivolous lawsuits that they’re talking about,” Mullis said.
“Even the ones [lawsuits] that they mention, if you look, they’re EPD (Environmental Protection Division) violations for some type of pollution, they’re out of compliance with best management practices or water quality issues,” Mullis said.
“The property adjacent owners, which are many times other farmers, have really severe concerns,” Mullis said.
“For example, there’s a vegetable farmer who has been operating for generations–and this is ongoing now–and has been using a stream to irrigate their crop for decades. And a large confined animal feeding operation moved in just upstream, and now that stream is so contaminated with bacteria, they can’t even irrigate their crops. These are produce vegetables that are for human consumption,” Mullis said.
“The problem with the CAFOs is the huge amount of waste they produce. One pig… produces ten pounds of waste per day. When you have these large operations with thousands of animals in a confined space, it is the equivalent to what a small city produces. But they don’t have a treatment facility. They end up really polluting the water around these farms – the streams and groundwater,” he said.
The State Senate tabled the legislation on Feb. 21, 2020. It did so because there were not enough votes lined up for the legislation to pass, according to the Georgia Capitol Beat news service.
Shortly thereafter, the Georgia General Assembly suspended the Legislative Session, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Legislative Session is still in progress, however, extended further into the calendar year than usual. There is some concern that the legislation could still pass this year.
Senate Committee Chairman John Wilkinson (R-Toccoa) said he plans to bring the bill back before the Senate in June when lawmakers reconvene the 2020 legislative session, according to Georgia Capitol Beat.
(END / Copyright Atlanta Progressive News / 2020)