Groups threaten to sue Eastern NC hog farm

jprice@newsobserver.comMarch 14, 2014 

— Two environmental groups issued a formal notice Friday that they intend to sue the owner of a Greene County farm and a related company for what they describe as persistent releases of swine waste into the Neuse River basin.

The notice, which is required under federal law, gives the farm owner 60 days to fix the problem.

The Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation and Waterkeeper Alliance, which are water quality watchdog groups, said they had filed the notice with Stantonsburg Farm Inc., which owns the farm, and Murphy-Brown LLC, the world’s top pork producer, which they said has leased it.

According to state incorporation records, the president of Stantonsburg Farm Inc. is Wendell H. Murphy Jr., son of pork magnate and former state lawmaker Wendell H. Murphy. The elder Murphy sold a company to Smithfield Foods Inc. in 2000 that became Smithfield’s hog-production subsidiary, Murphy-Brown LLC. Smithfield Foods itself was bought last year by Hong Kong-based Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd.

The notice is the latest of four that the environmental groups have filed against North Carolina farms recently. The other three farms are in Jones County, and one of those cases has already gone to court, said Larry Baldwin, who oversees issues involving factory-style livestock farms for Waterkeeper Alliance.

The farms seem to pollute with impunity, Baldwin said, and state regulators do little or nothing to stop it. Lawsuits under the federal Clean Water Act seemed like the only remedy, he said.

The younger Murphy could not be reached for comment Friday. Don Butler, a spokesman for Murphy-Brown, said he had seen an email indicating that the notice had been filed, but that he hadn’t read the notice yet.

“Not knowing what’s alleged, it’s hard to address it, but this is nothing new for them,” Butler said. “As you know, they have taken legal action against a number of farmers, and we believe the suits are without merit. But again, I have not seen the documents on this yet.”

The factory-style farm, which houses 4,800 swine, has a history of problems with its waste. On March 15 last year, neighbors reported to state environmental officials that the water in a stream coming off the property appeared to be heavily polluted.

The state investigated and fined the farm $5,237 for illegally discharging waste. Tom Reeder, then the acting director of the Division of Water Quality, reduced that by $2,250, said Sarah Young, a spokeswoman for what is now called the Division of Water Resources. The division, which Reeder heads, falls under the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources or DENR.

After the illegal discharge a year ago, the river keepers began testing water coming off the property via a small stream and a couple of ditches as often as every two weeks, Baldwin said. Sometimes it was polluted, other times it was not.

That could mean several things, he said, all of them related to the waste that builds up in lagoons and has to be occasionally sprayed on fields to prevent the lagoons from overflowing. It could mean the waste was applied too heavily in some places, or that rain before or after the application washed it into the stream and ditches, or that it was simply applied too close or into a ditch.

“There are a lot of different scenarios that could be leading to it,” Baldwin said. “But basically they are just not properly managing how they are applying their waste to the property they are using as spray fields.”

The water from the stream and ditches goes into Contentnea Creek, then the Neuse River. If it contains pathogens and other pollutants from swine waste, those things can cause fish kills and algae blooms, among other problems,.

The environmental groups also are worried about pollution from the farm seeping into area wetlands and the groundwater, Baldwin said.

The previous problems at the farm, according to DENR records, include another waste discharge into a tributary of the Contentnea in March 2009. It was assessed $3,576 in penalties and enforcement costs, but regulators trimmed that fine, too, by $500.

Between 2009 and February of this year, the farm also was issued “notices of deficiency” for three incidents in which the waste level in a lagoon was too high, and notices of violation for two others, according to a tally supplied by DENR. Four of those incidents were self-reported.

Don Webb, a neighboring landowner and long-time anti hog farm activist, said odor and flies have been a problem there for years, and that the waste discharge wasn’t new.

“DENR never does anything about it, and I talked with Governor Martin about it, and Governor Hunt and Governor Easley and Governor Perdue, too,” Webb said. “I’ve been involved with this for years, and the government never does anything about it, and it just gets worse and never better.”

Price: 919-829-4526

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