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Hog farm that spilled 1 million gallons of feces, urine into waterways had been warned of lagoon problems

[1]
The breach in the lagoon berm at DC Mills Farm, photographed Jan. 6. The berm broke on Dec. 21, sending an estimated 1 million gallons of hog waste into Tuckahoe Creek, a tributary of the Trent River. The creek runs through the farm and can be seen on the left side of the photo. (Photo courtesy Katy Hunt, Lower Neuse Riverkeeper)

DC Mills Farm has familial ties to another operation that incurred a record fine

This story was updated on Jan. 13 to reflect a Notice of Violation by state environmental regulators.

A Jones County farm that spilled an estimated 1 million gallons of hog feces and urine into a tributary of the Trent River shortly before Christmas had been cited twice in the past year [2] by state regulators because its lagoon was too full.

DC Mills Farms, along N.C. Highway 41 west of Trenton, received a Notice of Deficiency in February 2020 and a Notice of Violation in July, according to state environmental records. 

Donnie Mills, who co-owns the farm with his wife, Christian Lanier Mills, raises hogs for Smithfield Foods. The farm is permitted to house as many as 3,520 hogs at a time.

Officials from the NC Department of Environmental Quality are still investigating why a portion of the lagoon failed, sending the waste into Tuckahoe Creek on Dec. 21. The lagoon has since been patched. “We are unable to characterize the extent of the environmental impact at this time,” DEQ spokesman Robert Johnson said.

On Jan. 13, DEQ issued a Notice of Violation t [3]o DC Mills for the lagoon failure. There were in two holes in the lagoon, one of which allowed the waste to enter Tuckahoe Creek. Nor did the farm inform the public about the discharge via press release or notification in a local newspaper.

Because of the location of DC Mills Farms, even a minor accident can cause major problems. The farm lies on a peninsula of land within a flood zone that includes a swamp. Tuckahoe Creek runs through the farm and adjacent to the hog lagoon before joining the Trent River, two and a half miles away. 

Popular among boaters and fishing enthusiasts, the Trent River then flows northeast to New Bern, where it enters the Neuse River. The river empties into the Pamlico Sound, one of the state’s premier fishing areas and an important estuary.

On the afternoon of the spill, state regulators sampled surface water near the farm for fecal coliform, bacteria found in the intestines of people and animals. Testing showed levels of bacteria at 470 colonies per 100 milliliters of water, or 3.5 ounces. (This is the commonly used unit of measurement for the bacteria.) A second sample collected the same afternoon measured 340 colonies. Both far exceed the state’s surface water maximum of of 200 colonies per 100 milliliters.

A week after the spill, Lower Neuse Riverkeeper Katy Hunt sampled two areas: one upstream of DC Mills and another at a point a little over three miles downstream that receives inflow from multiple creeks. Levels of fecal bacteria were nearly three times higher downstream than upstream. Even a week later, the downstream concentration of one sample was 193.5 per 100 milliliters, below but nearing the state maximum. On Jan. 6, Hunt resampled those areas; the downstream concentration had decreased to 185.

However, there are three more swine farms near the tributaries and an unknown number of poultry operations, so DC Mills may not have been the sole source of the bacteria.

Smithfield Foods said it has removed the animals from DC Mills while the state investigation is ongoing. “The NC DEQ will complete an inquiry that will establish facts,” said Keira Lombardo, chief administrative officer for Smithfield Foods. “Specialists are working to identify the specific circumstance in this unusual instance. In the extremely rare occurrence when a supplier experiences an on-farm anomaly, Smithfield’s procedures and protocols include the removal of pigs from the affected farm.”

[4]
This Google Earth image shows Tuckahoe Creek and adjacent, the waste lagoon at DC Mills Farms.

Yet these occurrences aren’t as “extremely rare” as Smithfield maintains. This is the second major spill of hog waste from a farm into the Trent River or a tributary since 2017 — and there is a family connection between the two.

In September 2017, Lanier Farms, [5] which had a 12-year history of violations, discharged an estimated 1 million gallons of waste into the Trent River. Doug Lanier owns the farm, and his daughter, Christian Lanier Mills, was its certified operator when the discharge occurred. Donnie Mills was previously a certified operator there, state records show, and among those who initially met with DEQ inspectors after the incident.

Doug Lanier attributed the spill to broken equipment; investigators, though, determined the discharge was intentional and fined the farm $64,000, at the time the largest such penalty levied against any individual livestock operation — swine, cattle or poultry — in state history. 

(Since then, in June 2020, another contract grower for Smithfield, B&L Farms in Sampson County [6], was fined more than $87,000 after discharging 3 million gallons of feces and urine into nearby waterways and wetlands, killing at least 1,000 fish. DEQ found the farmer, Bryan McLamb was negligent in inspecting his lagoon and other aspects of farm management.)

Smithfield removed all of its 7,400-plus pigs from the Lanier Farms and has not repopulated it. Although Lanier Farms no longer raises pigs, the lagoon still contains waste and rainwater. Last July Doug Lanier received yet another Notice of Violation because he had allowed the lagoon to get too full.

[7]
Lanier Farms closed after a 1 million gallon discharge into the Trent River in 2017. Although Smithfield pulled its hogs from the farm, the lagoon remains. DEQ cited the farm in July 2020 for having high lagoon levels. In this photo taken Jan. 6, 2021, the lagoon is nearly at the brim. (Photo courtesy Katy Hunt, Lower Neuse Riverkeeper)

As of Jan. 6 — more than six months after the Notice of Violation, photos show that lagoon levels at the Lanier Farms remain high.

Christian Lanier Mills is no longer the certified operator at Lanier Farms, state records show, but she is the legally responsible person [8] for the DC Mills permit. Her husband, Donnie Mills, is listed as the certified operator, but state records indicate his license is invalid [8]. He has not paid his annual $10 license fee, which prompted state officials to issue another Notice of Violation [3] on Jan. 6, according to DEQ. 

Neither Christian Lanier Mills nor Donnie Mills could be reached via text messages or phone calls from Policy Watch asking for more information about the accident. An inquiry sent to Christian Lanier Mills’s email address listed on state forms bounced back.

Jones County is among four counties whose farms are inspected by the Division of Soil and Water Conservation, which is under the state Department of Agriculture. The other counties are Columbus, Brunswick and Pender, accounting for roughly 165 swine farms. However, if the soil and water division finds a violation, it is required to notify DEQ, which is responsible for permitting and enforcement.

The legislature created this arrangement in 1997 to “determine how soil and water conservation staff can respond more quickly and effectively,” to farm issues, according to Environmental Management Commission reports. SWC officials provide technical assistance to troubled farms, the reports say, to help them “achieve compliance with environmental regulations.”

In February 2020, Donnie Mills reported the high lagoon level to DEQ, which resulted in the Notice of Deficiency; in July, the Division of Soil and Water Conservation notified DEQ of the same issue. But at some point the lagoon levels returned to normal, according to state records. Two months before the DC Mills spill, on Oct. 24, 2020, the farm underwent a routine inspection by the division [9]. Inspection records listed no violations or concerns about the structural integrity of lagoon.

Then on Dec. 21, the breach occurred, and Donnie Mills called the Soil and Water Division when he became aware of it, according to the Department of Agriculture. In turn, the division contacted DEQ.

State permits require hog waste lagoons to be built to withstand minor flooding [10]. According to the National Weather Service station in New Bern, 1.17 inches of rain fell in Trenton on Dec. 17, and 0.91 inches on Dec. 21.

In 1997, the state legislature directed the Department of Environment and Natural Resources — later rechristened DEQ — to begin devising a violation point system for swine farms, similar to that of a driver’s license. Depending on the severity of the violation and the intentionality, the farm would be assigned points. If a farm accumulated six points within a rolling five-year period, it could lose its permit. If such a system were in effect now, DC Mills would have accrued six points and would be in a position to lose its permit if it incurred any additional violations through 2026. Lanier Farms would have likely lost its permit long before it discharged 1 million gallons of waste into waterways.

Yet 24 years later, the violation point system has never been developed or implemented. Under the terms of a civil rights settlement agreement with citizen groups, DEQ published an initial draft of the system [11] last year that it was to present to the Environmental Management Commission for rulemaking. However, to date, the EMC has yet to take up the issue. DEQ did not respond by deadline to questions about why the system has yet to be forwarded to the EMC.