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.

Environment

Burr, Tillis reject effort to overturn Trump power plant rule

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Thursday rejected Democrats’ attempt to overturn a controversial Trump administration power plant regulation.

Democrats forced a Senate floor vote on a resolution to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s power plant rule, which was seen as a weaker replacement for an Obama-era regulation to clamp down on power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions.

The effort was seen as largely symbolic, given that Democrats hold 45 seats in the chamber (two independent senators also caucus with the Democrats). The resolution required only a majority to pass, but it fell short by a vote of 41-53.

Both North Carolina Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr voted against the measure.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who’s facing a tough re-election bid next year, was the only Republican who broke ranks to support the effort. Three Democrats — Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Doug Jones of Alabama Joe Manchin of West Virginia — sided with most of the GOP in voting against the resolution.

A Sinema spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“In Maine, our economy is inextricably linked to the environment. Our state, which is situated at the end of the nation’s air pollution tailpipe, has made substantial progress in reducing harmful emissions by increasing energy efficiency, adopting clean energy technologies, and improving air quality and public health,” Collins said in a statement. “While I am pleased by the progress our country has already made in reducing air pollutants, the Administration’s rule to repeal and rewrite the Clean Power Plan is a step in the wrong direction.”

Senate Democrats sought to force their Republican colleagues to go on the record backing a Trump rule that critics say falls short of what’s needed to combat climate change.

“The Trump administration’s Dirty Power Scam comes at a time when Americans are demanding we take bold action to confront the climate crisis and it must be reversed,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last week when he announced the vote.

Senate Republicans control the voting schedule in the chamber, but Democrats were able to force a vote using the Congressional Review Act. The law allows Congress to overturn federal agencies’ regulations within 60 days after a rule is finalized. A CRA vote can be placed on the Senate calendar by securing the signatures of 30 members.

The Trump EPA regulation, dubbed the “Affordable Clean Energy” rule, was put forward as a replacement for President Barack Obama’s “Clean Power Plan.” The Obama measure was a centerpiece of the administration’s efforts to fight climate change and would have set national emission limits for coal-fired power plants. The Trump EPA argued that Obama’s approach was illegal, and gives states far more flexibility over cutting emissions, The New York Times reported in June when the rule was finalized.

“The EPA has a congressionally mandated duty to protect the human health and the environment,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who authored the resolution. “The EPA has abdicated its responsibility in promulgating this deeply flawed rule.”

Environment

Facts aren’t lining up in 1,4-Dioxane discharge by City of Greensboro, Shamrock Environmental

Shamrock Environmental in Browns Summit is across from the NC Soccer Complex. Nearly half the 7,100 residents in the census tract are from communities of color. There are more than two dozen permitted pollution sources in the area. (Map: DEQ Community Mapping System)

People who rely on the town of Pittsboro for their drinking water were likely exposed to high levels of 1,4-Dioxane for about a week in August, after the City of Greensboro discharged the compound, a likely carcinogen, into a tributary of the Haw River.

Levels of 1,4-Dioxane spiked to 114 parts per billion in the town’s drinking water in August, shortly after the discharge. Although the EPA doesn’t regulate 1,4-Dioxane, it has established a lifetime health goal of 0.35 ppb. At the drinking water forum sponsored by the Haw River Assembly in Pittsboro last night, NC State University scientist Detlef Knappe called the concentrations “very alarming.”

He estimated people were exposed to these levels for about six days before the contaminated water traveled through the town’s system.

North Carolina Health News first reported the discharge and spike in the 1,4-Dioxane levels in drinking water.

But many questions remain about who knew what and when — and the answers have not been forthcoming.

The discharge originated at Shamrock Environmental in Browns Summit. The facility contracts with other industries throughout the Southeast for oil recycling, hazardous and non-hazardous waste hauling and storage, and decontamination and vacuum services for trucks. In a press release, Shamrock Environmental said its facility, located in an industrial park, discharged 15,825 gallons of “non-hazardous wastewater” originating from a customer that did not report the material contained 1,4-Dioxane, a likely human carcinogen. The discharge occurred on Aug. 7.

Monty Hagler, spokesman for Shamrock Environmental declined to name the customer to Policy Watch.

The wastewater then entered the TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greensboro, which in turn discharged it into South Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Haw River. 1,4-Dioxane then contaminated the Haw River, the drinking water supplies for thousands of people living downstream.

However, the City of Greensboro did not inform state environmental officials of the discharge until Sept. 27. That’s when the city submitted its monthly discharge report for August, and mentioned it to DEQ staff.  DEQ did not announce the discharge until mid-October. Neither DEQ nor Greensboro would name Shamrock as the source of the contamination until North Carolina Health News reported their refusal.

City officials reportedly told DEQ that they were unclear when or if they needed to report the discharge because 1,4 dioxane is an emerging contaminant and does not have a specific permit condition.

It’s unclear why Greensboro officials were unaware of the reporting requirements; a city spokeswoman could not be reached by phone or email for clarification.

In fact, a press release from the city says that since 2015 Greensboro “has been proactive in working with NCDEQ and the industry” to reduce the discharge of 1,4-Dioxane “to the maximum extent practicable” — about 80 percent. The city also noted that it had identified Shamrock Environmental in Browns Summit as a “significant source” of the compound as early as 2015.

And, according to DEQ documents online, the TZ Osborne plant had been monitoring its 1,4-Dioxane discharge since December 2017. DEQ also sampled sites in the Cape Fear River Basin in 2018 and posted the results online.

Then in April of this year DEQ sent letters to treatment plants and industrial dischargers throughout the Cape Fear River Basin about a three-month investigative monitoring program to begin in July. The letter specifically mentioned 1,4-Dioxane.

On July 22, 2019, DEQ requested the plant provide a plan to reduce the amount of the compound leaving the plant. That plan was due Sept. 23.

According to online records, Shamrock Environmental has not been cited for violations in North Carolina, although the database is not comprehensive. But the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency did issue a Notice of Violation to the company in March 2016 for failing to obtain a proper hazardous waste manifest.

1,4-Dioxane has long been a contaminant of concern in the entire Cape Fear River Basin. In 2014, DEQ began a monitoring program from Reidsville to Wilmington, including the Haw River, the Cape Fear and several tributaries.

That monitoring showed levels as high as 1,030 ppb near Reidsville and 543 ppb near McLeansville.

Previous monitoring of Pittsboro’s drinking water showed varying levels of 1,4-Dioxane:

  • 15.6 ppb in 2014
  • 17.1 ppb in 2015
  • 7.5 ppb in 2016

A second monitoring period ran over 18 months from 2017 to 2018. That sampling showed levels of 1,4-Dioxane at 35 ppb in the Haw River near Pittsboro on May 9, 2018.

On June 13, 2018, the compound was found at 11 ppb in the upper arm of Jordan Lake, where the Haw enters the reservoir. Jordan Lake is the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people, including those living in Chatham and Wake counties.

Julie Grzyb, a permit writer in the Division of Water Resources, told attendees at a public forum in Pittsboro last night that the state could pursue enforcement action against the city. Even though Shamrock was the discharger, Greensboro is held responsible because it holds the discharge permit. DEQ could also enter into a Special Order by Consent with Greensboro, a legal document that lays out requirements for facilities that are “unable to consistently comply with the terms, conditions, or limitations” in their discharge permits.

Environment

Naming names, finally: Shamrock Environmental source of 1,4-Dioxane spike in Pittsboro drinking water

Shamrock Environmental Corporation is the source of a recent 1,4-Dioxane release into the Greensboro wastewater treatment plant, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality announced today.

DEQ is investigating the discharge, which occurred in August but was not reported by the City of Greensboro until Sept. 27. Although the 1,4-Dioxane, a likely carcinogen, originated with Shamrock, the discharge permit for the pretreatment program is held by the city, DEQ said.

North Carolina Health News reported several weeks ago that there had been a spike in 1,4-Dioxane levels downstream in the Pittsboro drinking water supply — the Haw River. This week, Greensboro officials and DEQ declined to name the company to NC Health News.

City officials are cooperating with the investigation, DEQ said. As a result, DEQ has initiated weekly sampling for 1,4 dioxane at Greensboro’s wastewater treatment plant.

1,4-Dioxane is not regulated by the EPA. It is persistent in the environment and impossible to remove using traditional water treatment methods.

Shamrock is headquartered in Browns Summit; it has several facilities in North Carolina and one in Virginia. The Patton Avenue plant, responsible for the discharge, is a tanker cleaning facility. It also treats and manages wastewater, recycles and disposes of drilling mud, and hauls waste.

DEQ’s online waste management document site does not list any notices of violation; nor does the Division of Water Resources online records repository. However, neither is comprehensive.

1,4 dioxane has historically been used as a solvent stabilizer and is currently used for a wide variety of industrial and manufacturing purposes. The compound can be found in industrial solvents, paint strippers, and varnishes and is often produced as a by-product of chemical processes to manufacture soaps, plastics, and other consumer products.

It’s often a byproduct of plastics manufacturing. Earlier this year, a Policy Watch investigation found that very high levels of 1,4-Dioxane in wastewater sludge from DAK Americas, a plastics plant in Fayetteville along the Cape Fear River. The facility was shipping its sludge to McGill Environmental, which was using it to make compost. Although the finished compost didn’t contain 1,4-Dioxane — it likely had evaporated — it was contaminated with PFAS, also known to be in wastewater sludge.

 

Environment

Researchers, state officials to answer questions about safety of Pittsboro’s drinking water

The Haw River at the Bynum Bridge, where elevated concentrations of 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS have been detected. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

State officials and university researchers will answer questions on Wednesday about the safety of Pittsboro’s drinking water, which contains elevated levels of  1,4-Dioxane and perfluorinated compounds (PFAS), known to harm human health. None of the compounds, of which there are thousands, are regulated by the EPA.

The panelists will share study data, discuss the health risks associated with drinking the water, and answer questions about how the state is addressing the contamination statewide. The event is sponsored by the Haw River Assembly.

  • Dr. Heather Stapleton, environmental chemist, Duke University
  • Dr. Detlef Knappe, proessor of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, NC State University
  • Dr. Jamie Bangma, environmental toxicologist, UNC Chapel Hill
  • Dr. Zack Moore, state epidemiologist, NC Department of Human Health Services
  • Julie Grzyb, permitting officer, NC Department of Environmental Quality

For nearly a decade, Haw River Assembly has been working with academic researchers, local and state agency staff, and affected communities to document and raise awareness around the issue of industrial contaminants in drinking water.

Public meeting about Pittsboro
drinking water
Wednesday, Oct. 16, 6-8 pm
Chatham County Agricultural and Conference Center
1192 US Highway 64 Business W, Pittsboro

University and EPA researchers found 1,4-Dioxane and several types of PFAS in the Haw River and other state waterways more than five years ago. DEQ tested the Haw River near Bynum last year, and found total concentrations of PFAS in raw water ranging from 926 parts per trillion to 1,981 ppt.

North Carolina Health News reported earlier this summer that Pittsboro had failed to notify residents of PFAS contamination in treated water flowing from their taps. Those concentrations, detected in October 2018, ranged from 17.7 ppt to 109.3 ppt.

DEQ and state health officials have recommended that people not drink water containing more than 10 ppt of a single compound or more than 70 ppt in total.