agriculture, Courts & the Law, Environment

BREAKING: Federal hog nuisance trial halted

[This is a developing story. It will be updated as information becomes available.]

Update: The trial has resumed with all 12 jurors

The federal hog nuisance trial against Murphy-Brown and Smithfield Foods has been stopped, at least temporarily, because a juror allegedly brought in printed material about the N.C. Farm Act debate.

According to a source with knowledge of the inner workings of the trial, the juror may have also passed the material on to other jurors.

The trial is on hold until US District Court Judge Earl Britt decides whether to dismiss the juror or jurors involved— or to declare a mistrial.

The trial could proceed with as few as six jurors. During the first trial, two jurors were dismissed for personal reasons, such as illness.

Murphy-Brown lost the first trial, which prompted Sen. Brent Jackson to sponsor SB 711, the N.C. Farm Act. The bill would all but erase the rights of neighbors of industrialized hog farms to sue for nuisance.

agriculture, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, Legislature, News, public health

The week’s Top Five on Policy Watch

1. A moment of extreme danger for NC public schools

There have been a lot of regressive education policies that have emanated from the North Carolina General Assembly in recent decades. Even prior to the Republican takeover that commenced in 2011, many Democratic leaders had already embraced the flawed conservative idea that our schools and students were struggling in many places because they were too “soft” and lacked sufficient “competition.” Hence, the early-century moves to introduce charter schools, dramatically expand the number of high-stakes, standardized tests and limit so-called “social promotions.”

In the last seven-plus years of GOP rule, the relative trickle of conservative education schemes has turned into a flood. Lawmakers have slashed funding, dramatically expanded charters (including for-profit, virtual charters), introduced private school vouchers, “education savings accounts,” “performance-based pay,” and state-initiated conversions of struggling schools to charter schools, and talked openly and repeatedly of privatizing what has long been understood to be a core function of government.

As unhelpful as each of these developments has been, however, they may well end up paling in comparison to the new and dangerous two-part change that’s currently making its way into law during the current legislative session.

At issue is the enormously controversial and dangerous plan to fundamentally alter the way North Carolina funds public schools by allowing individual cities to get into the business of running and funding public schools. Under the plan approved by the Senate last week, four wealthy suburbs of Charlotte that are angry with the administration of the county school system would be granted authority to fund their own charter schools and give priority admission to their towns’ students.

The plan is so radical and potentially game-changing that it actually drew negative votes from five Senate Republicans last week – something that almost never happens in that intensely partisan body – and is now attracting national attention. [Read more…]

2. In surprise revision to school safety bill, Senate Republicans seek insurance overhaul that may threaten NC’s Affordable Care Act marketplace

3. State lawmakers moving suddenly and swiftly to shut down nuisance suits against industrial hog farms

4. “Piecemeal” judicial redistricting: Lawmakers pushing a trio of bills that would impact a third of state’s residents

5. Amid anti-LGBTQ violence, NC Democrats seek expansion of state hate crimes law

agriculture, Environment

NC Farm Act, fattened with protections for hog industry, up for Senate vote at noon

Sen. Brent Jackson: “The judge was wrong” to let nuisance lawsuits move forward. (Photo: NC General Assembly)

Room 1127 of the Legislative Building was hot, noisy and crowded, with onlookers packed cheek to jowl. The scene at yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee meeting felt temporarily like a hog confinement barn, but without the manure.

However, private property and environmental advocates would argue that the NC Farm Act stinks. Among its many problematic provisions, Senate Bill 711 would immunize industrialized hog operations from virtually all nuisance lawsuits. It would also establish the outdated and noxious method of open-air waste lagoons and spray fields as the preferred method of managing millions of tons of hog manure and urine.

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican who represents three major hog-producing counties — Duplin, Sampson and Johnston — insisted that the bill would still hold “bad actors” accountable.

The problem is, that if the bill becomes law, there will be very few, if any bad actors.

The key section, “Clarify and Amend North Carolina Right to Farm Law” establishes that farms are presumed not to be a nuisance if they are complying with state regulations — regulations that are weak and only lightly enforced.

“This is not just a clarification” of the law, “but a radical change,” said Michelle Nowlin, a supervising attorney at Duke University’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. “It deprives people of their fundamental rights and sanctions a taking of property to benefit private industry.”

Only the most egregious, flagrant violations would be vulnerable to a nuisance lawsuit. For example, Lanier Farms in Jones County discharged millions of gallons of hog manure and urine into the Trent River last September. No one filed a nuisance suit, but because of the farm’s 10-year violation history, state officials finally fined Lanier $64,000, the largest such penalty against a hog farm. Faced with bad publicity and potential Clean Water Act violations, Murphy-Brown pulled its pigs from the operation, which is now closed.

Nor would hog operations be considered a nuisance if they are managed in a manner “substantially consistent with practices, methods or procedures generally accepted and routinely utilized by other agricultural and forestry operations in the region.” (The bill also applies to forestry and all agriculture, but hog farms generate the most complaints.)

Deciphered, this means that if all hog farms in a “region” use open-air manure lagoons and spray that feces and urine onto their fields, then they are not a nuisance.

“People have to live in these conditions,” said Sen. Paul Lowe Jr., a Forsyth County Democrat. “It’s horrifying to think about. I hate to think about what it does to property values. It turns my stomach to hear some of this stuff.”

Read more

agriculture, Environment

The plot thickens on SBI investigation of Duplin County employee over hog lagoon tests

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.

BJD Farm I by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

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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.

 

Dotson Farm by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Melvin Farm by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

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Davis II Farm by Lisa Sorg on Scribd