Court Rules Against Nuisance, Negligence and Trespass Claims Against Biosolids

A Pennsylvania state court has ruled against plaintiffs who claimed damages from the off-site odors and particulates from the land application of biosolids. The suit, filed in 2008, claimed that allowing off-site biosolids odors from a farm was negligent, constituted a legal nuisance and was a trespass.

In issuing its December 28, 2012 Summary Judgment for the defendants, The Court of Common Pleas of York County, Pennsylvania dismissed all claims of the 37 plaintiffs who lived near the farm where biosolids were recycled. The defendants in the case, known as Gilbert v. Synagro, were Synagro Technologies (a biosolids management company), the owner of the land where the biosolids were applied and the farmer of the land.

The court found that the use of biosolids as a fertilizer was a protected farming activity under the Pennsylvania Right to Farm Act, and stated that use of biosolids is not significantly different from other organic fertilizers that farmers have traditionally used.  The court also held that the plaintiffs could not prove that the land applier, farmer and landowner owed a legal duty to the neighbors regarding off-site odors.

In its ruling, the court said “finding a trespass for odors from a farm would undoubtedly expose any agricultural operation, especially those located near more suburban areas, to much vexation.” The court cited another ruling that a person who lives in the middle of a city cannot ask to be immunized from the effects of urban life, such as traffic and noise, an inevitable a part of urban life.

“Correspondingly,” said the court, “a person who lives in an area that is more rural or zoned agricultural cannot ask to be immunized from the effects of odors and insects which are inevitably a part of agricultural life.”

In coming to its decision, the court also relied on evidence provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, which all filed briefs with the court supporting the defendants and arguing that land application of biosolids was entitled to the protection of the Right to Farm Act. The court also found that the use of biosolids in farming has been “acknowledged and addressed by both the United States government and the government of the Commonwealth.”

The case has attracted significant attention since it was filed in 2008 and the court’s ruling is the first judicial decision to address the protection from tort lawsuits provided by a right to farm act, as well as the duty owed by users of biosolids to neighbors.

In a statement, Synagro said that the company will continue working with its municipal and agricultural partners to ensure that the valuable nutrients in biosolids can be recycled to promote crop growth, conserve water and support sustainable farming. Synagro’s lead counsel was Jimmy Slaughter of Beveridge & Diamond, P.C., in Washington, D.C.

Click here to download a PDF copy of the ruling.