RALEIGH — After investigating complaints by environmentalists, the state agriculture department has cited a Wallace-based farm operator for leaving dead hogs unburied too long at a Greene County farm.
The Waterkeeper Alliance and the N.C. Riverkeepers, which are water-quality watchdogs, have been urging the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to do more to monitor the disposal of dead swine, in part because of the ongoing outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PED.
The virus essentially kills all piglets infected and has become a big problem for pork producers across the country.
State law governing animal disposal requires the pigs be buried at least 300 feet from public waters, at least 3 feet deep and within 24 hours of dying.
After complaints by the environmental groups in February, state agricultural officials flew over farms in half a dozen major hog-farming counties without finding any problems.
State Veterinarian David Marshall also visited the Greene County farm, Stantonsburg Farm, on March 24 and found no problems with various burial sites there, said Brian Long, a spokesman for the department.
The environmental groups then supplied agriculture officials with more information on March 26, including dated aerial photographs showing dead hogs in the holes uncovered, he said.
The next day, Marshall, accompanied by Assistant Commissioner Joe Reardon and Terry Tate, the senior vice president of the farm operator’s parent company, Murphy Family Ventures, visited the farm again.
The burial sites were again properly covered, and there were no violations visible, Long said.
But according to the warning notice issued by the state, a review of the photos and the farm’s records and an internal review by Murphy determined that a burial pit had likely been uncovered from at least Feb. 23 through Feb. 28, the dates of the two photos.
Murphy officials issued a formal response saying that it was clear the law had been broken and that the farm staff had not followed the company’s protocol.
The key evidence, Long said, was the photos provided by the environmental groups.
“Those photos that the waterkeepers gave us were really helpful,” he said.
The company was given the “notice of warning” rather than a stiffer penalty, such as a fine. That’s normal for a first offense when the company involved is being cooperative, Long said. The penalty for further violations can be as much as $5,000 each.
According to a letter from Murphy to Marshall on March 28, the company fired the manager of the farm after the problem was revealed and sent company officials to the farm to review its procedures for disposing of dead animals and to reinforce prior training with its workers.
Mark Anderson, an attorney for Murphy, said the farm actually had not been struck by PED, and that was why hogs that had died from others causes were being buried there in pits rather than, as is normally the case, trucked away.
PED spreads with unusual ease, and in many cases new infections are believed to have been caused by viruses moving from farm to farm aboard trucks used to move hogs, dead or alive.
The environmental groups were disappointed with the lack of penalties, said Larry Baldwin, who supervises issues involving factory-style livestock farms for the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international organization that has a Raleigh office.
“This notice was a slap on the wrist, if even that, and doesn’t constitute any real enforcement, except to say that hey, if we catch you again, then we’ll fine you,” Baldwin said.
The potential damage, which included spreading disease by scavengers or contamination of groundwater, warrants harsher penalties, he said.
Also, Baldwin said, there is nothing in the state’s response to indicate regulators will keep an eye on the issue.
“If anyone does, it will probably have to be us,” he said.