agriculture, Environment

BREAKING: SBI investigating Duplin County employee over lagoon testing on hog farms

The locations of eight of the 35 farms sampled by Duplin County Watershed Technician Billy Houston. Some of the locations have more than one farm. These were sampled on March 17. Because of discrepancies in the results, Houston is being investigated by the SBI and DEQ.

This is a developing story. It will updated as soon as more information becomes available.

The State Bureau of Investigation is investigating a 35-year-employee of the Duplin County Soil and Water District over questionable results of lagoon testing on dozens of hog farms. SBI spokeswoman Patty McQuillan confirmed the existence of the investigation to Policy Watch but could not provide other details.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality independently confirmed it is opening its own investigation into  tests conducted by Billy W. Houston, a watershed technician who has been with the Duplin County SWD since 1983. Houston did not return a phone call or an email Monday afternoon seeking comment. SWD Board of Supervisors Chairman Frank Williams and Vice Chairwoman Ann Herring, which are elected positions, did not return emails seeking further information.

The case currently centers on 35 farms and 55 lagoons in Duplin and Sampson counties where Houston tested sludge– essentially hog feces, urine, dander, feed, as well as water used to flush the confinement barns — in the hog lagoons. The sampling measures levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and heavy metals, and is required by state permits before the material can be applied to spray fields.

According to letters dated May 21 from DEQ to the farm operators, the sampling conducted by Houston produced consistently and drastically different results when compared with tests subsequently conducted by the state. For example, levels of zinc at one farm’s lagoon were 101,108 percent higher when sampled by the state than by Houston. At another farm, Houston underreported copper levels by 910 percent. In a few cases, Houston’s results were higher than the state’s; at one lagoon, his sampling showed the presence of aluminum but the state did not detect any.

Waterkeeper Alliance, the NC Environmental Justice Network and REACH obtained eight of the letters and provided them to Policy Watch after publicly announcing their contents yesterday. DEQ said it would release the remaining letters once the farmers have confirmed they received them.

Houston, who is based in Kenansville, sampled lagoons from at least eight farms on March 17. He then gave the samples to the NC Department of Agriculture lab, which is protocol. In turn, that lab found unexpected similarities in the results across all of the lagoons, even though they are on different farms miles away from one another.

The Agriculture Department then alerted DEQ’s Division of Water Resources, which regulates the farms in Duplin and Sampson counties. DWR conducted its own testing on April 13, sending seven teams to sample 55 lagoons at 35 farms. After the state regulators found the excessive discrepancies, it notified the farmers and opened its investigation.

Hog farmers use the sampling results to determine how much sludge they can apply to their spray fields. State permits regulate how much sludge can be applied in order to prevent the fields from being overloaded with contaminants. If a farmer applies too much sludge, the soil can’t handle the contaminants, which then can leach into groundwater or runoff the field into waterways and adjacent properties.

It’s unclear if DEQ has requested land application records from the farms in question to see if the sludge had been sprayed on the field. Under North Carolina law, those records are kept on the farm and not publicly available unless state regulators request them.

 

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