Pennsylvania Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments on the Right to Farm Act
On May 5, 2015, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Gilbert v. Synagro Central, LLC, a case involving the scope and application of the term “normal agricultural operation” under Pennsylvania’s Right to Farm Act (“RTFA”). Specifically, the parties argued whether the land application of biosolids is a “normal agricultural operation” as a matter of law and whether such an activity is protected by the RTFA. This case apparently marks the first time that the highest court of any state has examined whether the land application of biosolids is protected under a state right to farm law.
The land application of biosolids has been a viable farming practice in Pennsylvania for many years. Biosolids are generally considered to be nutrient-rich materials resulting from the treatment of domestic sewage. They can be applied as fertilizer to stimulate plant growth and are often used on farms, which reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. Significantly, biosolids must be used in accordance with applicable federal and/or state regulatory requirements.
In Gilbert, a group of residents challenged the use of biosolids on a local farm. The trial court held that the use of biosolids is a normal agricultural practice as a matter of law and is, therefore, protected under the RTFA. To support its holding, the court explained that the land application of biosolids has been employed for over twenty years in Pennsylvania and is regulated by both the state and federal governments. On appeal the Superior Court disagreed, and held that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether the farm’s specific application of biosolids was “normal.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to decide, in part, whether a jury trial was required to determine whether the land application of biosolids falls
within the RTFA’s definition of a “normal agricultural operation.”
The outcome of Gilbert may impact the viability of the land application of biosolids in Pennsylvania. By allowing juries to determine whether biosolids recycling is “normal” on a case-by-case basis could make the practice of biosolids recycling much more expensive and potentially expose those entities recycling such material to liability.
Steve Hann filed an amicus brief with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in support of Synagro Central, LLC on behalf of the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. He is the East Region Solicitor for the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association.
February 29, 2016
February 25, 2016
February 22, 2016