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Jessica Culpepper ’04 wins landmark legal case

There are big court decisions, and even bigger court decisions – those that are clearly landmark rulings. Just a decade or so after graduating from Warren Wilson College, Jessica Culpepper ’04 is a lead attorney in one such landmark decision.

Jessica Culpepper ’04

Jessica Culpepper ’04

In a case involving a large industrial dairy in Washington state’s Yakima Valley, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled that manure from livestock facilities can be regulated as solid waste – the long-sought outcome that plaintiffs represented by Culpepper were seeking in their legal action.

“We have brought justice to a community that has struggled for clean water and to have their day in court for more than two decades,” wrote Culpepper, the Food Safety and Health Attorney with Public Justice of Washington, D.C.

The ruling, in a summary judgment on all counts, marked the first time the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) has been applied to a farm’s animal waste. As a result, Culpepper said, the new RCRA standards can be applied to industrial farms nationwide. The extent of the contamination and cleanup in the Yakima Valley case will be determined at a trial in March.

To say that Culpepper, who currently serves as a Warren Wilson College Trustee, is elated on several levels about the decision probably ranks as understatement.

“Having this precedent will give citizens across the country a new legal tool,” Culpepper said in a recent phone interview. “The case is against one bad actor, but it’s no different from thousands across the country. The industry is very powerful – good at keeping harms hidden.”

But there’s another powerful element to this particular case: Yakima River Valley residents.

“I’ve become close to all these people,” Culpepper said. “They’ve been trying to speak up for years, but everybody has ignored them.

“To give them this victory really gives them something fundamental: the right to clean water. Having their needs and their community validated is very powerful.”

The dairy farm decision is obviously a career highlight for Culpepper, who was awarded Warren Wilson’s 2004 Pfaff Cup Award, presented annually to the graduating senior who most clearly exemplifies qualities of the ideal student. A history and political science major, Culpepper edited the College’s literary magazine, and served on the judicial board and publications/communications committee. She also was an international student coordinator.

“The work I do now is directly out of my experience at Warren Wilson,” she notes with justifiable pride.

Culpepper also observed that the contrast could not be starker between large industrial farms, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), and a farming operation such as the Warren Wilson College Farm.

“The problem with CAFOs is that they are not really part of the community, and they actually generate more waste than the towns they are near,” Culpepper said. “These people are not stewards of the environment or of their communities.

“When I was at Warren Wilson, I had a lot of friends who went on to become farmers on small farms,” she recalled. “I want to protect operations like that.”

And, Culpepper said, “I’m very proud that Warren Wilson is teaching sustainable agriculture. I think it’s so fundamental that the school is teaching future farmers and leaders how the growing of our food should be done.”


Speaking of the Warren Wilson College Farm, it has been ranked No. 1 among all college and university farms in the nation: .