agriculture, Environment

A light sentence for Billy Houston, who lied about hog lagoon records in Duplin County

Hog lagoons must be tested periodically for nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals. When the feces and urine mix is sprayed on hayfields, excessive amounts of these chemicals can harm the crops, as well as contaminate groundwater, streams and even the drinking water supply. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Billy Houston got in over his head. His side hustle as a private “animal waste consultant.” His full-time job as a Duplin County Soil and Water Conservation District employee.

And so in his private business, he began lying to the farmers, to the Department of Environmental Quality, even to himself.

After a State Bureau of Investigation probe, Houston pleaded guilty to 28 counts of falsifying records, a Class 2 misdemeanor. Yesterday Superior Court Judge Henry L. Stevens, IV, sentenced Houston to two consecutive sentences of 30 days in jail, which were suspended. Houston is on supervised probation for 12 months, must pay a $500 fine plus court costs, and complete 50 hours of community service.

The judge also prohibited Houston from sampling lagoons or doing bookkeeping in the swine industry other than for his family farm.

Since Houston had no previous criminal record, state sentencing rules prescribe that he receive a suspended sentence for the misdemeanor charge.

The Duplin Times reported the sentencing yesterday.

Although Houston had worked for 35 years by the Duplin County Soil and Water Conservation District, the falsified hog lagoon records are related to his private consulting business. Houston retired from the district in June 2018, after the state began investigating him.

In June 2018, as Policy Watch reported, Houston filed record with state environmental officials showing he tested 35 farms and 55 lagoons in Duplin and Sampson counties — all on the same day, which, given the distances between the farms, is highly unlikely, if not impossible.

But, as his criminal pleadings revealed, Houston admitted to an SBI investigator that he falsified the testing records. The Duplin Times story reports that Houston told the investigator that he “would pull all of his samples from two or three different lagoons that were in good working condition and submit them as if they had been pulled from all of the lagoons.”

“Houston indicated that he had started out just trying to help out farmers in his area,” the story went on, “but had gotten overwhelmed with his full-time job with Duplin County and his part-time job of collecting samples. Houston further claimed to be helping his father-in-law who had significant health issues. Houston admitted that he was wrong and that ‘he had been stretched too thin and messed up.’”

Falsfiying this information can have serious consequences for farmers and the drinking water supply. The lagoons — which contain hog feces, urine, dander, feed, as well as water used to flush the confinement barns — must be periodically sampled, according to state permits, in order to measure levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and heavy metals before the material can be applied to spray fields.

Farmers grow Bermuda grass and hay on the sprayfields; excessive amounts of these chemicals not only harm the crops, but they can contaminate groundwater and nearby water ways, including drinking water supplies.

According to letters dated May 21, 2018, 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.

Although Houston was moonlighting as a private consultant when he lied about the lagoon records, the Duplin County Soil and Water Conservation District had long been concerned about the side jobs of several of its employees. In 1996, according to emails obtained under the Public Records Act, Tom Jones, regional coordinator for the Division of Soil and Water Conservation at what is now known as DEQ, wrote to Interim County Manager Judy Brown that the state had received concerns from legislators, district supervisors and state and federal agency personnel.

Jones stressed that the concerns were not about the conduct of the individual employees, but the perceived conflict of interest.

“The conflict itself involves the fact that services provided by Agriment are closely linked (although complementary, not identical) to those provided by the same employees while serving the SWCD,” Jones wrote. “Comments voiced include an unfair business advantage with private services offered based on public data and recommendations. The potential for graft is also raised and, while the truth proves otherwise, rumors can be damaging.”

It’s common for private consultants to fill gaps left by underfunded and understaffed counties. There are 2 million hogs being raised on more than 500 farms in Duplin County. The local Soil and Water District has just seven employees, and some of them are administrators who do not conduct fieldwork.

agriculture, Environment

Unregulated, enormous poultry farms and their millions of birds again lie in hurricane’s path

Source: Environmental Working Group

When a hurricane knocks on North Carolina’s front door, as Dorian is today, the seas start to churn, the winds begin to whip and the air Down East stinks worse than usual.

We often associate the pre-storm stench with swine farmers spraying their fields with hog waste in order to lower levels in the open-pit lagoons. But the poultry industry also presents an environmental threat, both because of the number of birds, an estimated 515 million in North Carolina — compared with 9 million hogs — and because it is largely unregulated.

The News & Observer published a story last week about a policy change at the NC Department of Environmental Quality that has resulted in a sharp increase in the number of violations based on complaints lodged against concentrated animal feeding operations:  In the six months from November 2018 to April 2019, the agency found 62 violations — twice as many as had been publicly documented in the previous 10 years.

(The article, written by Barry Yeoman, was produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and The Guardian, where it first appeared.)

The story included a list of the 37 farms cited by environmental regulators. Of these, 12 are swine, including one farm owned and operated by Murphy-Brown, the world’s largest pork producer and which contracts with most individual farmers in the state.

Four of the cited farms raise cattle, one is a horse farm — the esteemed Tryon International Equestrian Center in Polk County — and 21 are poultry operations.

The poultry operations are not apparent from the list. However, these farms had no permit number, which indicates they are “deemed permitted.” And most poultry farms fall under this classification. “Deemed permitted” means that a facility is considered to have a permit — and paradoxically, to be in compliance — even though it has not received an individual permit for its construction or operation.

These “deemed permitted” farms use a “dry litter” method of managing their waste, which supposedly reduces the ammonia odor and risk for pathogens and flies. But poultry farms, especially gigantic operations housing millions of birds, do stink, even if the manure is dry. And when the waste is spread on fields it can wash into nearby streams, just like manure from swine farms can.

Farms that use “wet litter” disposal methods are required to have a Division of Water Resources permit. Only 20 poultry farms in the state report disposing of wet litter.

Because there are no permits for dry litter operations, there are no statewide records of where the operations are located, of the exact number of birds or the amount of waste. Only when a natural disaster occurs, such as Hurricane Florence, and the industry releases the number of birds killed — 3.4 million — does the public begin to get an inkling of the enormity of these operations.

The Waterkeeper Alliance has estimated the number of birds in North Carolina at 515 million, based on the number of barns constructed. The Alliance, local waterkeepers, and the Environmental Working Group have been tracking these barns — building permits are public record — and calculated that since Hurricane Florence a year ago, 62 new farms have opened throughout North Carolina, with 519 barns. Each barn can hold at least 35,000 birds.

BasinNew operations No. of BarnsEstimated no. of birds*
Lumber River1732011. 2 million
Upper and Lower Yadkin River401605.6 million
Cape Fear 423805000
Broad River116560000
Total6251918.165 million

Sources: Lumber Riverkeeper, Yadkin Riverkeeper, Cape Fear River Watch and Broad River Alliance.

The lack of regulation over these poultry farms came up in the legislature earlier this session, when Sen. Harper Peterson, a Democrat from New Hanover County, proposed in a committee a benign recommendation to study the pros and cons of greater oversight. Sen. Brent Jackson, a farmer representing Duplin, Johnston and Sampson counties, put the kibosh on Peterson’s notion, claiming the poultry industry needs no further regulation because it’s in compliance. How would we know for sure? Jackson didn’t explain.

As for the swine operations, names of the farms with violations can be found by cross-referencing the permit numbers with the entire DEQ database of permitted farms. One of the cited farms is owned and operated by Murphy-Brown; the other farms are owned by individuals who are contracted by giant pork producers. Those contract farmers are required to adhere to strict operational requirements imposed by the companies, down to the type and amount of feed the pigs receive.

Permit No.Farm nameFarm ownerAnimalType of farmNo. animalsCountyStreetCity
AWI640074Harrison Pork Productions, Inc.Willie HarrisonSwineSwine - Feeder to Finish9600Nash4985 Harrison RdCastalia
AWI750004Tryon International Equestrian Center FacilityTryon Equestrian Properties LLCHorsesHorses - Horses 400PolkJohn Shehan RdTryon
AWS090173Bull Creek Farms, LLC FarmBull Creek Farms LLCSwineSwine - Feeder to Finish11000Bladen353 Avery RdE Fayetteville
AWS090173Bull Creek Farms, LLC FarmBull Creek Farms LLCSwineSwine - Wean to Feeder4400Bladen353 Avery RdE Fayetteville
AWS100021Carolina Bay Farms , LLCMaguire Farm LLCSwineSwine - Farrow to Wean4000Brunswick2551 Exxum Rd NwAsh
AWS100037C Bay NurseryC Bay Nursery LLCSwineSwine - Wean to Feeder6400Brunswick2347 Exum Rd NwAsh
AWS240015Owen Farm, Inc.John OwenSwineSwine - Feeder to Finish2940Columbus7855 Old Stage RdRiegelwood
AWS310400Farm #20 / 3620Murphy-Brown LLCSwineSwine - Farrow to Wean2000Duplin226 Johnny B Tann LnFaison
AWS310404Mike Kennedy FarmMike KennedySwineSwine - Feeder to Finish2000Duplin345 Kennedy LnPink Hill
AWS310413Brown FarmR LanierSwineSwine - Feeder to Finish3300Duplin1061 E NC 24 HwyKenansville
AWS820624Sinclair FarmsCarlton SinclairSwineSwine - Farrow to Wean1250Sampson5151 Keener RdClinton

However, some farms with violations aren’t listed in the DEQ database nor on the agency’s map of permitted animal feeding operations. Given their location, western North Carolina, and the prefix on the permit number –AWD — these are likely dairy or beef cattle.

 

agriculture, Environment

EPA protection of bees, pollinators against pesticides is weak, getting weaker

Bee hive at Burt’s Bees at American Tobacco Campus, Durham (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

While the EPA’s pollinator protection program sounds promising, it does little to actually ensure the welfare of the nation’s honeybees, according to an EPA Inspector General report published this week.

The report criticized the EPA for inadequately assessing the success or failure of 45 state-managed pollinator protection plans. The program, which is voluntary, is supposed to ensure bees are safe from the harmful effects of pesticide exposure.

However, the program includes only managed colonies — those that farmers hire to pollinate their crops. Wild colonies and other pollinators that are also susceptible to pesticide poisoning are not accounted for.

And, the report went on, the program is focused solely on acute poisoning, not the chronic exposure that can weaken and kill the bees, especially during overwintering, when food sources are scarce.

The EPA has been working on a survey of participating states, including North Carolina, about their individual programs. However, there is no plan on how, or if, the data will be used to improve state protections.

The survey is scheduled to launch this fall, and it is a separate data collection program from the one run by the US Department of Agriculture. Last month the USDA  announced it would no longer collect honeybee colony data, which is critical to understand the health and threats to these pollinators.

The Honey Bee Colonies report allows agencies, beekeepers, and other interested parties to compare quarterly losses, additions, and movements and to analyze the data state-by-state. The agency said a lack of funding prompted the program’s closure.

Since 1940, the US has lost more than half of its managed colonies, from 5.7 million to 2.7 million in 2015. Acute and chronic exposures to pesticides are among the causes.

Coincidentally, also last month, the EPA reintroduced the pesticide, allowing sulfoxaflor not only to be sold commercially but also be applied for new uses. The decision was prompted by a 2015 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that required the EPA to remove sulfoxaflor from the market and ordered the agency to further study its effects on bees.

The EPA said data shows that when used according to the label, “sulfoxaflor poses no significant risk to human health and lower risk to non-target wildlife, including pollinators, than registered alternatives.”

Sulfoxaflor disappears from the environment faster than widely-used alternatives like neonicotinoids, the agency said.

However, pesticides are not always applied according to the label. Even some licensed pesticide applicators take shortcuts, allowing the chemicals to drift onto nearby crops or ignoring the warning labels altogether.

For example, according to NC Department of Agriculture data from June, Ricardo M. Aldape, a pesticide applicator for Wendell Garret Johnson’s peach farm in Candor,  in Montgomery County,   applied a pesticide to blooming parts of peach trees, resulting in a bee kill in nearby hives. The label stated the pesticide should not be applied to blooming, pollen shedding or nectar producing parts of plant if bees may forage during this period.

Aldape agreed to pay $500 for using a pesticide in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.

 

agriculture, Commentary, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, Legislature

The week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch

Commentary:

1. In the IStation saga, Mark Johnson’s failings get a big stage

If North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson ever fizzled in his lustrous perch in DPI’s corner office, his sharpest critics surmised, he would be failed by his extraordinarily limited bona fides.

After all, when it comes to Johnson’s background – two years in a Charlotte classroom via Teach for America, a stint as a corporate attorney, and a brief tenure as a school board member in Winston-Salem – there is simply not much to parse over.

“I mean, he has taught two years,” a flabbergasted June Atkinson marveled in 2016, with no small amount of condescension, when Johnson ousted her. “He’s never run an organization that has almost 900 people. He has never traveled to the 100 counties. He doesn’t have a background. So, it’s like, how do I teach or how do I help a person who is an infant in public education to become an adult overnight to be able to help public education in this state?”

The image conjured up by Atkinson’s damning assessment – that of an in-over-his-head novice – endures today among Johnson’s detractors.

But after IStation, after the iPads, after the supremely suspect rollout of the superintendent’s propagandizing website, perhaps we were wrong. [Read more…]

Bonus read: Monday numbers: A closer look at the depleted ranks at the Department of Public Instruction

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2. NC Supreme Court justice publicly maligns colleagues, urges critics of America to “just leave” the country


State judicial code makes discipline unlikely for Justice Paul Newby

The only registered Republican on the state Supreme Court likely won’t face any consequences after publicly disparaging his fellow justices, urging a crowd to watch their work over the next 18 months for judicial activism, and telling people who don’t like America to “just leave.”

“Sue till you’re blue. Sue till you’re blue,” said Paul Newby during a speech in Wake County two weekends ago. “What do you think the most dangerous branch of government is? The judicial branch is the correct answer. Imagine seven AOC’s on the state Supreme Court.”

Newby, who has announced he will run for Chief Justice in 2020, was met with clapping and a loud “boo” from the crowd. He was referring to New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose initials have become a sort of Republican slur. [Read more…]

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Commentary:

3. Unbecoming of a judge: NC Supreme Court justice’s Trump-like comments go too far

It’s no secret that the United States has a significant and growing problem when it comes to the matter of selecting judges. This problem was on vivid public display in 2016, when the Republican majority of the United States Senate refused to consider a highly qualified presidential nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly a full year on blatantly partisan grounds.

As troubling as the blockade of Merrick Garland and the subsequent flood of frequently unqualified ideologues advanced by President Donald Trump have been, however, the situation is arguably even more dire at the state level, where the phenomenon of judges running for election continues to give rise to all manner of problematic behavior – both by judicial candidates themselves and the forces supporting and opposing their candidacies.

As Policy Watch journalist Melissa Boughton reported yesterday, there was a new and troubling installment in this ongoing saga last week when North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby let loose with a startlingly partisan attack on his fellow justices during a speech to a Wake County Republican audience.[Read more…]

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4. Hours wasted and a flip-flop on hemp in the Farm Act befuddles House committee

The NC Farm Act: Four months, seven editions, at least a dozen hours of committee hearings and legislative staff time, reams of paper, hundreds of miles of travel by the public, some from as far away as the mountains — and today the bill is back to its original Senate form.

“Why is the ag committee chair [Rep. Jimmy Dixon] taking a different position than earlier in the process?” Rep. Chuck McGrady said in the House Judiciary Committee this morning. “I’m confused.”[Read more…]

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5. Activists to Congress: N.C. residents living ‘on bottled water and fear’ 

What did leading chemical corporations know about the health risks of PFAS, and when did they know it?

Members of Congress sought an answer to that question this week at a hearing on widespread public exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a dangerous class of chemicals that’s ubiquitous in North Carolina and other states. One lawmaker described PFAS as “the DDT of our era.”

California Rep. Harley Rouda, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform Environment Subcommittee, opened the hearing by accusing companies of withholding information from the public.

DuPont and other companies have long known about the negative health effects of PFAS, which are used in everyday products such as microwave popcorn bags and nonstick pans, Rouda said. [Read more…]

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6. The budget, the veto and Medicaid

Democratic Senator who initially supported the budget says it’s time for the GOP to negotiate

The political stand-off over whether to expand Medicaid is stretching the state budget stalemate deep into summer with no end in site. But this week Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) said she’s worried about how the gridlock could hurt the 1.6 million low-income North Carolinians already using Medicaid and undermine planned changes to the system.

The current Medicaid program in North Carolina is complex and expensive, with the federal government paying $2 to every $1 the state contributes to its $14 billion annual cost. But the way that system works is set to undergo a significant change in November. [Read more…]

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7. Partisan gerrymandering trial to conclude today after Thursday bombshell

A two-week long trial about whether Republican lawmakers violated the constitution when they drew voting maps to maximize their partisan advantage will come to an end today.

The Wake County Superior Court three-judge panel likely won’t make a decision for a least a few weeks after hearing mostly complex testimony from expert witnesses that delved deep into the weeds of North Carolina redistricting.

The trial will continue at 9 a.m. today with another expert witness, this time called to testify on behalf of the intervenors in Common Cause v. Lewis.

John Branch, an attorney for the intervenors — a group of Republican voters — commenced a direct examination of Michael Barber, an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University, late Thursday afternoon. [Read more…]

Bonus reads:
Did Hofeller draw NC maps before redistricting process? Judges throw out expert testimony showing he didn’t

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8. After “A Decade Without a Raise” workers, elected officials call for raising minimum wage

Dayosha Davis works in fast food, lives in public housing in Durham and struggles to provide for her two children.

Child care starts at $250 a week, she said, which is difficult to afford on the $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

“Last year I enrolled my daughter in pre-school,” Davis said. “And I had to take her out of pre-school because I couldn’t continue to pay for her education, even with help from my mother. It was a hard pill to swallow.”

Wednesday marked 10 years since North Carolina last raised the minimum wage — from $6.55 to $7.25 per hour. [Read more…]

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9. Listen to our latest radio interviews and micro-podcasts

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10. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

agriculture, Environment

Hours wasted and a flip-flop on hemp in the Farm Act befuddles House committee

Industrial hemp in a greenhouse (Photo: NC Industrial Hemp Association)

The NC Farm Act: Four months, seven editions, at least a dozen hours of committee hearings and legislative staff time, reams of paper, hundreds of miles of travel by the public, some from as far away as the mountains — and today the bill is back to its original Senate form.

“Why is the ag committee chair [Rep. Jimmy Dixon] taking a different position than earlier in the process?” Rep. Chuck McGrady said in the House Judiciary Committee this morning. “I’m confused.”

The Proposed Committee Substitute was distributed to lawmakers last night.

Rep. Dixon, who recently called marijuana a “hellish gateway drug,” has been a hemp hardliner, and largely responsible for the House holdup on smokable hemp. Meanwhile, Sen. Brent Jackson favors smokable hemp because it would economically benefit farmers.

“Have you changed your view on hemp?” McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, asked Dixon.

“I’ve expressed my particular view very objectively throughout the process,” Dixon said, adding he had met with Jackson and interested parties about the measure. “I encourage you to vote for the bill.”

Most of the division has focused on the smokable hemp portion of the bill. Law enforcement has pleaded with legislators to prohibit smokable hemp because it’s difficult for officers to discern between it and marijuana. Farmers, though, say the concerns are overblown. If they can’t grow smokable products, they will be at an economic disadvantage compared with other states that do allow it.

CBD oil and similar extracts, plus rope, textiles, food products would be legal.

Hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that induces a high.

For the past two months, Senate and House committees have fought, flipped and flopped. The ban on smokable hemp was to go into effect in December 2020, then 2019, and now it’s 2020 again. Smokable hemp was classified as a controlled substance, like marijuana. Now it’s not. There was language to study the issue of smokable hemp. That’s been struck.

Rep. Billy Richardson, a Cumberland County Democrat, complained that the bill the Judiciary Committee was presented with differed from the version that left House Agriculture three weeks ago.

“This is the process that we go through,” Dixon replied. “Positions change over time, as frequently happens.”

However, positions have not changed on other controversial sections of the bill:

  • exempting hog farms that use or produce biogas from the state’s odor rules
  • allowing hog farms that use anaerobic lagoons and digesters to expand even though there is a 20-year moratorium on new or expanded industrialized swine operations
  • making secret many public records kept by local and state soil and water conservation districts in regards to industrialized livestock operations

Democrat Rep. Pricey Harrison of Guilford County tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill several times to strike the odor rule and expansion provisions.

“Since we continue to love the smell of breakfast, I ask you to oppose the amendment,” Dixon said.

The sealing of soil and water documents also alarmed some committee members. The language is a direct rebuke to attorneys and journalists that have used these documents either in court cases or in stories critical of hog farms.

“What’s the problem with making this available to the public?” Richardson said.

“The public can already get the information,” Dixon said. “From the local soil and water district office, the local Farm Services Agency Office, or they can contact my office.”

If the bill becomes law, none of those offices is required to provide the documents.

Rep. Rachel Hunt, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, attempted to strike the confidentiality provision. “In the spirit of transparency, the public needs to be aware of this information,” Hunt said. “This is a violation of the Sunshine Law.”

“We think there is plenty of sunshine,” Dixon said.