$1 million from hog farm case to help Waccamaw River

The money a farmer must pay for soiling the Waccamaw will be used to protect waterways

ablythe@newsobserver.comJuly 25, 2012 

— Thomas Walker, the top federal prosecutor for North Carolina’s Eastern District, on Wednesday came to the defense of an unusual crime victim — a river.

Flanked by Ignacia S. Moreno, a top U.S. Justice Department official for environmental crimes, the U.S. Attorney for North Carolina’s Eastern District reaffirmed his commitment to protecting the state’s scenic and natural resources.

And he used the case of a Columbus County hog farmer, who was sentenced to prison and his company ordered to pay $1.5 million in fines and restitution for pollution, to illustrate that pledge. The case, prosecutors said, was one of the worst environmental crimes brought to court in the state in recent years.

Walker said Freedman Farms’ offense shows how untreated hog waste can wreak havoc on the Waccamaw River.

“We all enjoy the air we breathe and the water we drink and the scenery we look at,” Walker said. “We have to be vigilant in pursuing those who attempt to do harm to these natural resources.”

The Waccamaw River, a slow-moving waterway that meanders for 140 miles through the coastal plains in southeastern North Carolina and eastern South Carolina, is unusual in many ways.

It is a “blackwater river,” a dark, tea-colored, tannin soaked vein through abandoned rice fields and wetlands that also teems with extraordinary flora and fauna because of the limestone bluffs that act as a natural antacid to the otherwise acidic waters.

Once a lifeline for a region whose commerce was steeped in the rice fields, turpentine and logging industries, the river has been transformed in modern times to a recreational haven for water sports and recreational fishing. It also is a drinking-water supply and source of power-plant cooling water.

As beautiful as the Waccamaw is, though, pollution from upriver hog farms can sully its watershed, which is home to wildlife that includes American black bears and the threatened Carolina pygmy sunfish.

With Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the head of the State Bureau of Investigation and conservationists at the federal courthouse in Raleigh, Walker called news crews together to highlight the recent prosecution of Freedman Farms for violating the federal Clean Water Act. The Columbus County hog farmer was convicted of intentionally discharging hog waste into a creek that flows into the Waccamaw River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean near the historic port of Georgetown, S.C.

From Dec. 13-19 in 2007, federal prosecutors said, Barry Freedman, president of Freedman Farms, intentionally discharged more than 324,000 gallons of “hot” untreated hog waste from one of two farm lagoons into a stream near Browder’s Branch, which flows through the Lake Waccamaw watershed and into the river.

The Columbus County facility had about 4,800 hogs at the time and remains in operation, but the president is going to prison this fall and the company has been ordered to pay $1 million to the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust in five installments to mitigate the damage caused by the crime.

What started as a tip from one person who called authorities after seeing hog waste in Browder’s Branch turned into a significant criminal case.

“This started with the power of one,” said Gaston Williams, a federal prosecutor who worked on the case. “A citizen called in and said ‘There is pig manure in the creek.’ ”

‘It has a creepy look’

Though investigators were successful in getting the farm to pump roughly half of the waste – about 169,000 gallons – from the creek back to farm lagoons, an eery blue was cast across Browder’s Branch, the iridescent waste reflecting the sky overhead.

“It has a creepy look,” said Williams.

In addition to the $1 million to the Coastal Land Trust, Freedman Farms was ordered to pay a $500,000 fine, $75,000 of which went to the Southern Environmental Enforcement Network, which will use the money for environmental crimes training for investigators in the district.

Freedman, the farm’s owner, was sentenced to six months in federal prison and six months of home confinement after pleading guilty to “negligent violation” of the Clean Water Act. Freedman Farms also is required to implement environmental compliance and annual training programs.

Freedman’s errors, though, resulted in an odd boon for workers at the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, which was feeling the pinch of General Assembly budget cuts this year.

With the $1 million in restitution, Camilla Herlevich, executive director of the land trust, hopes to acquire “many hundreds of acres” to permanently protect a large swatch of land along the Waccamaw River.

Not only will the money be used to purchase tracts, Herlevich said, it also will be used to inspire matching grants that offer “the most bang for the buck.”

“Certainly this is the biggest thing we’ve ever seen in terms of a restitution settlement,” Herlevich said.

Walker said he hoped it would also act as a deterrent to any livestock farmers considering similar threats to the environment.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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