Billy W. Houston, a watershed technician who samples contaminants in hog lagoons for the Duplin County Soil and Water District, also moonlights as a private consultant doing the same work. And that raises questions about whether his questionable activity — now the target of an State Bureau of Investigation probe — occurred on the county clock or on his own time.
Update: Thursday at 10:09 a.m.: Frank Williams, Duplin County Soil and Water District, confirmed that Houston did this work as part of his private consulting business, not on county time.
Duplin County Attorney Wendy Sivori confirmed that Houston’s employee records list a second job similar to the one he holds with the county. Sivori said she had not heard of the SBI investigation until Policy Watch informed her of it.
The SBI is looking into why Houston’s sampling results of contaminants in 55 hog lagoons on 35 farms in Duplin and Sampson counties were similar, even though the lagoons were in most cases, miles apart and the farms had different numbers of hogs.
As Policy Watch reported yesterday, Houston’s sampling results were drastically different from subsequent tests conducted by the NC Department of Environmental Quality. In most instances, Houston underreported levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals, such as copper and zinc, in the lagoon sludge — as much as 101,000 percent, according to state records.
Houston has not returned a phone call nor an email from Policy Watch seeking comment.
The Department of Agriculture, which originally tested Houston’s samples, is conducting its own investigation. So is DEQ, which returned to the farms and conducted independent sampling. Neither agency could comment on the status of their respective ongoing investigations.
According to state records, Houston sampled at least 13 of the farms on the same day, March 17. He then sent his samples to the Department of Agriculture for testing, which is protocol. The Agriculture Department lab uncovered discrepancies in the results and alerted DEQ, which regulates the farms.
On April 13, DEQ’s Division of Water Resources sent seven teams of employees to sample the same 55 lagoons at the 35 farms. The farms were given two days’ notice, although that is not legally required.
DEQ has publicly released 13 of the 35 letters it sent to farmers alerting them of the discrepancies. Although the correspondence is public record, the agency is providing them only when the farmer confirms he or she received the letter.
Policy Watch received eight letters on Monday and five on Tuesday. (See below for the letters.)
If it turns out that Houston sampled all 55 lagoons on 35 farms in a single day, that in itself would seem nearly impossible given the time constraints, particularly in mid-March. The length of daylight on March 17 was just over 12 hours, so Houston would have had to have worked from sunrise to sundown, averaging three farms per hour with no breaks.
Even visiting 13 farms in a single day seems onerous, given the territory in two counties that Houston had to cover.
The farms in question differ significantly in the average number of hogs they can house. For example, Kevin Bostic’s farm in Duplin County is permitted for 3,200 hogs. Bizzell Davis’s farm, also in Duplin County, can accommodate 6,400. Laylan Houston is allowed to house about 2,400, according to state permit records.
It’s also unclear if Houston charged different fees and used a different testing protocol for his private work. Part of the investigation presumably focuses on whether the 35 farms in question were tested while Houston was working for the county or independently.
Houston has worked for the Duplin County Soil and Water Conservation District since September 1983. He also is designated as one of 400 technical specialists designated by the North Carolina Soil and Water Conservation Commission. His speciality is listed as waste utilization and runoff controls.
Technical specialists have the authority to certify that animal waste management plans meet the applicable minimum standards and specifications.