When most people think about preventing water pollution, they probably picture sewage plants and factories, spilling gunk into a river or lake. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA), overturned dirt in a farmer’s field is technically the same thing as that noxious gunk: pollution.
The CWA was intended to keep our nation’s water supplies clean and protected from pollution, so it defines many different substances, chemicals, and acts that can pollute water. But along with actual things that could be harmful to the environment, the CWA defines dirt as a “pollutant.”
There are likely many bureaucratic reasons why the government would claim that it makes sense to consider dirt “pollution.” For example: dumped dirt can pollute actual waterways (nobody should just be filling in navigable rivers by dumping truckloads of dirt in them), but the Clean Water Act rightly requires permits and imposes conditions on such things.
Yet one major side effect of considering dirt a pollutant is that doing so allows the government to regulate a farmer’s field in the same way that it would regulate chemicals being dumped in a river. This means that many farmers have been forced to pay exorbitant fines and go through years of court battles simply for plowing their fields.
For example, California farmer Jack LaPant is currently being sued by the Trump administration for plowing his property to grow wheat on it. He faces millions in penalties for plowing the dirt on his farm. His neighbor John Duarte had to pay $1.1 million to settle similar charges for which Trump administration officials threatened him with over $40 million in liability.
Yet plowed soil is as far from pollution as one can get. In fact, plowed soil actually makes the ground healthier and more productive. But the law says dirt is pollution. And in the EPA’s view, when you move dirt 4 inches from point A on a farm to point B, you polluted point B. And the EPA frequently issues enforcement orders and files federal lawsuits seeking millions in penalties from farmers for simply plowing their fields.
All in the name of “fighting pollution.”
The EPA treats small family farmers or someone building a home the same as massive cases of pollution. The reality is that they’re not the same, and treating them as such violates people’s property rights while harming the mission of protecting the environment. Yet there are solutions to this problem. Federal courts can clarify that plowing a farm does not pollute that farm, such as in Jack LaPant’s case. For its part, Congress could clarify that plowing dirt to make it grow plants better is not “pollution.” And the Trump administration could live up to its reputation for regulatory reform by not suing farmers for millions of dollars for plowing their farms.
We all want clean water. The EPA should stick to preventing actual water pollution, stop pretending that farm dirt pollutes farms, and leave the farmers alone.