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.

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