In a surprise about-face, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has withdrawn an order demanding that West Virginia poultry grower Lois Alt obtain a Clean Water Act discharge permit for stormwater runoff from her farmyard or face up to $37,500 per day in penalties, according to a presse release from the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF).  “While the action is a great victory for Alt, it leaves unresolved a major legal issue with serious implications for other livestock and poultry farmers that must be addressed,” the AFBF said.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia ruled in October that AFBF and West Virginia Farm Bureau have the right to join Alt’s lawsuit. EPA had aggressively opposed the Farm Bureaus’ participation. EPA’s withdrawal of the order comes six months after Alt filed her legal action and a mere six weeks before Alt and AFBF are scheduled to file briefs challenging EPA’s interpretation of the law.

In withdrawing its order, EPA cited new management practices identified during a May 2012 re-inspection of the farm. However, EPA’s inspection report also states that dust, feathers and small amounts of manure were still observed on the ground at the farm–which was the very same basis of EPA’s original order, according to AFBF General Counsel Ellen Steen. “EPA still has not backed away from its position that any amount of pollutant on the ground at a livestock or poultry farm requires a Clean Water Act permit,” according to Steen. “The more likely reason for EPA’s withdrawal is that it does not want to defend its position in court.”

EPA’s November 2011 order threatened Alt with $37,500 in fines for each time stormwater came into contact with dust, feathers or small amounts of manure on the ground outside of her poultry houses as a result of normal poultry farming operations. EPA also threatened separate fines of $37,500 per day if Alt failed to  apply for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. Alt responded by filing her own legal challenge to the EPA order in June 2012.

“EPA knows very well that most farmers lack the resources to fight back when they face an EPA order–even if the order has no legal basis,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob  Stallman. “We are happy for Ms. Alt that EPA has flinched, but the principles for which she stood remain in danger.”