A horse is a horse, of course.

But when it’s the main culprit in a lawsuit claiming the equine animal may be linked to Crohn’s disease and the spread of the E. coli bacteria, a horse becomes so much more.

A lawsuit filed Aug. 30 in Ventura County Superior Court alleges that a nonprofit horse rescue ranch in Meiners Oaks, California Coastal Horse Rescue (CCHR), is neglecting its property, causing “offensive smelling dust clouds, laden with E. coli and other possible toxins” to contaminate the neighboring property owned by Camille Sears.

Sears, a tangerine grower, alleges that the dust from CCHR’s operation is landing on, among other things, her tangerine trees, which will negatively impact her business. She is suing for emotional damages and compensation.

“I have received letters from buyers that said if E. coli is on the fruit, they will not buy the fruit,” said Sears, who bought her eight-acre property in 1996. “We’re looking into ways to clean off our fruit and make sure to clean it. … But that is not a solution. The solution is to have the horse ranch stop polluting our property.”

Sears was also recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which is linked to E. coli, according to the lawsuit.

CCHR denies the allegations, saying it has been a good neighbor since moving to the property in 2008 and that Sears is the only person in the neighborhood ever to complain. 

“The county has said we’re fine and that we’re in legal zoning,” said Cindy Murphree, CCHR operator.

What’s more troubling to Murphree is that the legal defense expenses are mounting, already nearing $20,000. With the lawsuit only in its nascent stage, the costs threaten the existence of the ranch and its horses, which survive, basically, by donations. 

“If we have to move, we’d have to put down about six to eight horses because nobody would want to take them because of their needs,” said Murphree, who has been involved with horse rescue for 16 years. “But we don’t plan on losing the property and we’re keeping the horses where they are.”

Sears said that the lawsuit was the last-ditch effort after mediation attempts failed. But as an atmospheric scientist and air quality consultant, she feels it could have been avoided if the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District (VCAPCD) had responded to her original complaints four years ago.

Instead, the VCAPCD, she said, has been skirting around the issue. Dan Searcy, manager of the VCAPCD compliance division, said the district has sent an employee to the ranch on a few occasions.

“We’ve talked to the complainant about this problem. But the problem now is, it has been raining, so the dust is a nonissue,” said Searcy. “For us to take any formal action, we have to do our own sampling and observe the problem.”

Sears said that she had the dust from her trees tested by an independent lab and the results were conclusive for E. coli, which could be spread from the horses’ urine and waste. Murphree hasn’t seen the lab tests, but said the dust on her trees could come from anywhere, including the other horse ranches in the area.

“We have tried to be good neighbors and designed the facility to keep horses in the middle, a couple of acres away from Ms. Sears, four acres away from the neighborhood,” said Murphree. “We’re a longtime nonprofit who knows what we’re doing. But I’ve never seen anything like this (lawsuit).”