agriculture, Environment

Durham officials tighten loopholes on illegal dumping near Falls Lake, but enforcement remains lax

For a year, state officials have ordered Jim Puryear, the owner of 101 Southview Road in Durham, to plant vegetation on his land to curb erosion after an illegal dumping operation polluted a stream and wetlands near Falls Lake. This photo, taken Dec. 1, 2019, shows nothing has been planted. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Years of illegal dumping near Falls Lake finally prompted Durham County officials to strengthen rules on what constitutes “beneficial fill” — used to improve farmland — and what is merely trash disguised as dirt.

Durham County Commissioners last week approved changes to the Unified Development Ordinance that require more accountability from landowners who want to use beneficial fill. 

The commission passed the amendment by a 3-1 vote. James Hill voted no; Brenda Howerton was absent from the meeting.

Durham City Council had already approved the changes earlier in November. 

Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs: “This is very serious.” (Photo: Durham County)

Landowners who want to use beneficial fill now have to apply to the county, said Ryan Eaves, Durham County’s Stormwater Control and Erosion manager. They must detail their proposed activity, including the source of the fill material, and how long the disposal will occur.

“Sedimentation sounds benign,” said Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. But when dirt accumulates in waterways it leads to more flooding. Contaminants can also hitchhike on the sediment particles, further polluting the waterways. 

“iI’s an environmental issue and a safety issue,” Reckhow said.

However, several people who live near the lake and the illegal dump sites objected to the amendments, saying they are still insufficient to protect the water supply for a half million people downstream and those on neighboring private drinking water wells.

“The proposed changes aren’t going to stop the environmental abuse,” Ruth McDaniel, a farmer and soil scientist who lives on Benny Ross Road, adjacent to a former illegal dump site, told the commission. “It’s are not the best that our community can produce, and I ask that changes not be enacted until there is more stakeholder input.”

State law defines beneficial fill as dirt, asphalt and concrete, whose purpose is “to improve land use potential or other approved beneficial reuses.” 

Dumping has occurred at these five addresses near Falls Lake. With the exception of 2817 Baptist Road, the other locations have been shut down by either county or state officials — or both. Russell Stoutt is responsible for the illegal dumping at Kingsmill Farm, Benny Ross Road and Southview Road, according to state and county documents.

But at least one illegal dumper has outmaneuvered county officials for three years. Policy Watch previously reported on three parcels — 550 Benny Ross Road, 101 Southview Road and 201 Southview Road — where hundreds tons of dirt infiltrated with trash and other unknown substances had been dumped under the guise of beneficial fill.

All of the sites lie within a half-mile of Falls Lake; the acreage is also veined with streams that flow into the drinking water reservoir.

Russell Stoutt owns the eight-acre Benny Ross Road property. The county and the NC Department of Environmental Quality together fined him nearly $100,000 for erosion and water quality violations. However, Stoutt has yet to pay the penalty, and the case is in litigation.

McDaniel told the commission that the county has not enforced existing regulations regarding illegal dumping. For example, after county officials ordered Stoutt to stop dumping on Benny Ross Road, he continued for another four months, McDaniel said. 

“We were calling for inspections because it hadn’t stopped,” she said. “Russell knows we’re watching him. It just starts somewhere else.”

After the county forced Stoutt to stop dumping on Benny Ross Road, he began hauling dirt and trash to the Southview Road parcels, which are owned by Jim Puryear of Wendell. Stoutt filled in parts of wetlands and streams that contribute to the environmental health of the Falls Lake watershed. 

Because property owners are responsible for activity on their land, Puryear was fined $22,000 by DEQ for the Southview Road violations. For nearly a year state officials have ordered Puryear to plant grass or other vegetation to keep the erosion in check. As of Dec. 1, there was none — just packed mud after a recent rain.

New language also limits the height of dirt stockpiles. At Benny Ross Road, Stoutt had piled dirt 40 feet high, with steep slopes that threatened to collapse.  Read more

agriculture, Environment, Legislature

Disaster relief bill includes money to buy out vulnerable swine farms

This map shows the location of swine farms in Duplin County, home of more than 2 million hogs, compared with 100-year flood plains. (Map: Lisa Sorg, based on swine farm data from NC DEQ and FEMA flood maps)

A chronically underfunded program to buy out swine farms in the 100-year flood plain received another $5 million as part of a $280 million disaster relief package that passed unanimously in the House last night.

The money includes appropriations to state agencies for mitigation and resiliency, as well as local government loans to help communities damaged by Hurricanes Dorian, Florence or Matthew, as well as Tropical Storm Michael.

The measure now goes to the Senate, where it’s expected to pass.

Depending on the cost to buy out the farms, which is based in part on the price per pound of live hogs, the funds will chip away at the backlog of concentrated animal feeding operations in the 100-year flood plain. Last year, when the state relaunched the moribund buyout program, $5 million covered the purchase of five to eight farms, according to state agriculture department figures. At the time, 45 to 62 active swine farms were located within the most flood-prone areas. 

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Duplin County, home of more than 2 million hogs, introduced the buyout amendment to the original bill.

The buyout program launched in 1999, after Hurricane Floyd, Dennis and Irene hammered the state. After four buyout rounds totaling nearly $19 million for 43 farms, the legislature stopped funding the program in 2007. More than 100 farmers who wanted to participate in the buyout program couldn’t.

But Hurricane Florence was a game-changer: Rising water flooded 46 lagoons and another 60 nearly overtopped. Last year the NC Department of Agriculture secured $5 million to restart the buyouts, split between federal and state funds.

The buyout funds are used to close lagoons, decommission farms, purchase swine production and development rights, and establish conservation easements in areas prone to flooding. The applications are ranked based on several criteria: the facility’s history of flooding, distance to a water supply or high-quality waters, structural condition of the lagoons and the elevation of the hog barns and lagoon dikes to the 100-year flood plain.

The program is voluntary and intended to reduce environmental damage, particularly to waterways, from inundated lagoons. The farmers can still plant row crops on that land or raise livestock on pasture.

At a legislative committee meeting held shortly after Hurricane Florence, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said he opposed further buyouts unless existing farms could move out of the floodplain or those on higher ground could expand. Both are currently prohibited under a 20-year moratorium on industrialized hog farms that rely on an outdated lagoon-and-sprayfield system of managing the millions of gallons of feces and urine.

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.