On a sultry day last September, Megan Stilley arrived at Lanier Farms, a large swine operation in rural Jones County. An environmental specialist with the state’s Division of Water Resources, Stilley investigates complaints of illegal spills and other environmental violations. The people responsible are rarely glad to see her.
Shortly before noon, Doug Lanier and two of his farmhands met Stilley at the site. He was upset that news of his farm’s illegal discharge the day prior into the Trent River — eventually determined to be 1 million gallons of feces-laden wastewater — had been posted on Facebook by a local TV station.
A terse verbal exchange ensued. “At that point,” Stilley later wrote in her inspection notes, “I felt uncomfortable being there alone.”
Lanier Farms, which housed 7,450 pigs owned by Smithfield Foods, now has the dubious distinction of receiving the largest civil water quality penalty of all concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)— swine, beef cattle or dairy — in at least six years, according to state records. The NC Department of Environmental Quality recently fined Lanier more than $64,000, based on the 11 current violations and its extensive history of noncompliance.
The August 2017 incident was so egregious that Smithfield Foods, which had not penalized the farm for previous state violations, placed the farm on probation. In December, it pulled all of the pigs out of Lanier Farms, essentially putting it out of business, at least for now.
“As a condition of their contracts with Smithfield, farmers are required to comply with all state laws and regulations,” the company said in a statement to Policy Watch. “We support the DEQ’s enforcement of swine farm regulations.”
When Katy Langley, the Lower Neuse Riverkeeper who monitors CAFOs and waterways in that basin, learned of the spill, she had not heard of Lanier Farms. She then read the case file. “And I found out they were one of the frequent offenders.”
In fact, a review of past inspection and violation reports obtained under the Public Records Act reveals dozens of violations since 2006. Those reports also demonstrate the lengths to which Doug Lanier went in order to dodge the penalties: obfuscation, stonewalling and pleas for leniency. He has until March 10 to appeal the $64,000 penalty.
At stake is the health of waterways in the Lower Neuse River Basin. Lanier Farms sits near several wetlands and just south of the Trent River, a popular fishing and boating destination. The Trent squiggles through the small downstream communities of Pollocksville and Trenton, before making its grand entrance in historic New Bern. There it joins the Neuse, feeds into its estuaries and then heads out to sea.
“The Trent is narrower than the Neuse and not as diluted,” Langley said. “It’s not a clean river. It’s not a healthy river.”
On Aug. 31, 2017, Hurricane Irma was stewing in the Atlantic, its path still uncertain. It’s unclear if Lanier pumped the water from his waste lagoons — which were chronically near the brim — to keep them from overflowing if the storm hit.
(Lanier could not be reached for an explanation; his voicemail was full and not accepting more messages. An alternate number had been disconnected. )
Whatever the reason, DEQ received an anonymous complaint at 11:14 a.m. of wastewater leaving the farm and entering a nearby woods. By 12:30, inspectors Stilley and Marlene Salyer who are headquartered an hour away in Beaufort County, met the complainant in the forest, where they discovered wastewater — colored pink, indicating it came from a hog lagoon — in a ditch.
The two tracked the stream of pink water 1.8 miles to the Trent River, near Highway 41. They called the farm. Within 15 minutes, Stilley and Salyer arrived and met farmhand Ralph Marady, who had parked his truck near a lagoon. Photos later showed the level in the four-acre lagoon had been been inexplicably lowered by several inches; farms are required to record how much wastewater is being applied to spray fields. But Marady told them he had no idea there had been a spill.
With Marady, Stilley and Salyer headed toward the woods and the wastewater spill. But Marady diverted them, apparently to hide the discharge.
“We followed him (Marady) for about two minutes and stopped because he seemed to be leading us away from the origin,” the inspection notes read.
Finally, the inspectors found wastewater gushing from a hose that apparently had been disconnected from a hydrant. The contamination from a lagoon was ponding on the ground and running into the woods.
“Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?” Stilley asked Marady. “Because if you hid something, it could be criminal.”
Lanier Farms is in Jones County, one of four counties that are part of an inspection program started 20 years ago. The purpose of the program, which began as a pilot and is now permanent, is to divide the workload of overseeing nearly 2,300 swine farms between DEQ and the state Department of Agriculture.
Under the Agriculture Department, the Division of Soil and Water Conservation is responsible for routine operation and compliance inspections of 166 swine farms in Jones, Columbus, Brunswick and Pender counties. DEQ’s Division of Water Resources (DWR) is responsible for enforcement and compliance audits in those counties, in tandem with DSWC, their agriculture counterparts.
According to Environmental Review Commission reports, the program is intended to“determine how soil and water conservation staff can respond more quickly and effectively,” to CAFO issues. DSWC is charged with providing technical assistance to farms beset by complaints and problems, to help them “achieve compliance with environmental regulations.”
DSWC staff inspects Lanier Farms annually. In fact, an inspector had visited the farm for an hour on Aug. 2, 2017, about a month before the illegal spill. Farms receive advance notice of an inspection if the visit is routine, according to an agriculture department spokeswoman, so that the owners can assemble the proper paperwork.
But even with a heads up, the farm failed to have its paperwork in order. Inspector Martin McLawhorn noted that the farm needed to place a copy of its permits in an official file and to remove old hay bales from the perimeter of the sprayfield – a longstanding complaint of DWR. Otherwise, the report listed no major violations.
Since the illegal discharge of Aug. 31 had not yet occurred, it’s obvious that the spill couldn’t be noted. However, there were perennial issues, such as improper crops being grown on the sprayfield, which DSWC didn’t mention in its inspection, but DWR did in its follow up.
In August 2016, DSWC noted that the levels in both lagoons needed to be lowered as weather permitted, but tried to be optimistic: “the farm is making improvements.”
Top 5 fines assessed on CAFOs, 2012-2017
|Kingsmill Farm II||Dairy||Durham||$22,080||2015|
|Triple W Farms||Dairy||Alamance||$15,143||2015|
Most of the time, though, DSWC’s inspections of Lanier Farms were critical of its operations. Those observations aligned with DWR’s findings and often prompted environmental officials to issue a notice of violation.
Over 14 years, Lanier Farms showed a pattern of maintaining high lagoon levels, the consequence of which can be a disastrous spill or breach. Crops on the spray fields were in poor condition, which can result from improper waste application. The fields had bare patches, allowing water to run off the farm. The farm did not keep proper or complete records, making it difficult, if not impossible to track its operations. Periodic groundwater samples showed exorbitant levels of fecal coliform, nitrogen and phosphorus — all which contribute to river pollution and algae blooms.
And over those 14 years, Lanier usually had an excuse for the farm’s deficiencies: Broken equipment. A malfunctioning hose. A reel broken by the wind. An accident.
As often as Lanier had an excuse, rarely did DEQ levy a fine: Just $2,220 in 2013, according to state records. In that case, Lanier bargained with the state. His plea? That making improvements to the spray field and removing the old hay “will require significant monetary resources,” he wrote. “Any money spent on this action will reduce the overall available funds for other activities.”
The Environmental Management Commission’s Civil Penalty Remission Committee reduced the fine to just $1,470.
And judging from inspection reports, Lanier never invested in those promised improvements.
After Megan Stilley asked Ralph Marady about his knowledge of the illegal spill on Aug. 31, the farmhand tried to dodge the question.
“I don’t want to make Doug (Lanier) mad,” Marady replied, according to the inspection notes. “He just got out of the hospital.”
Shortly afterward, Lanier arrived on the scene. Stilley and Salyer asked him to contain the wastewater and then pump what he could back into the lagoon.
The next day, Sept. 1, Stilley returned. “Nothing had changed from the day before,” she wrote. “I felt little effort was taken to retrieve the waste.”
Meanwhile, summer’s last hurrah, Labor Day weekend, began. The state advised kayakers and canoers, many of whom enter the Trent River from the Chinquapin Chapel Road crossing downstream of the farm, to avoid contact with the water.
The following Tuesday, Stilley and Salyer again visited the farm. They went to the woods and were headed to the lagoon, when Lanier stopped them. “He told us he knew what had happened,” Stilley wrote.
He showed them a damaged pipe gasket that he claimed was responsible for the “leak.”
“It appeared as though he just cut it in half,” the inspection report read.
Christine Lawson, program manager of DEQ’s Animal Feeding Operations, told Policy Watch that Lanier can keep his permit, which does not expire until September 2019. The farm must keep a permit until all the lagoons are closed; the permit gives the state legal authority to hold Lanier responsible for properly pumping and spraying lagoon waste.
Typically, a DEQ spokesman said, the agency doesn’t revoke a permit until all the compliance issues have been resolved.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Management Commission is reviewing what are known as “2T rules.” These rules govern facilities that don’t discharge waste into state waters. Hog farms fall under 2T and hold “non-discharge” permits.
“That hog farms don’t discharge is legal fiction,” Will Hendrick, an attorney for Sound Rivers, said at an Environmental Management Commission (EMC) public hearing last fall. He and other environmental advocates are asking that the EMC reclassify swine operations under more rigorous rules that acknowledge the discharge. The EMC is expected to finalize the rules next year.
Total penalties assessed to CAFOs ($)
|Year||Total penalties assessed|
Source: NC DEQ
As the Lower Neuse Riverkeeper, Langley will monitor if and when Lanier restocks his farm. In fact, she spends many rainy days driving through her territory, looking for wayward CAFOs. There are 240,000 pigs on 50 swine CAFOs in Jones County alone, and she said she frequently spots farms illegally spraying manure on their fields in the rain.
She’s concerned about the damage these discharges can inflict on the Trent River, which despite environmental threats, is still scenic. “It’s not as well-known as the Neuse,” she said. “But it’s beautiful.”