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Hog farm lagoons filling up

(Friday, March 14, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Greg Barnes, Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, 03/11/03: Bob Epting tipped the wing of his small airplane to get a better view of a farmer spraying hog waste over a field Saturday.

''No standing water, that's the rule,'' said Epting, a Chapel Hill lawyer and environmental activist. As the plane circled the farm, ponding water began to glisten in the bright sunlight. '

'As wet as it is, it would really be criminal to spray today,'' Epting said.

Yet many hog farmers in eastern North Carolina are left with few other options because continual heavy rains have raised the waste in their lagoons to dangerously high levels.

On Thursday, Coleen Sullins, section chief of the N.C. Division of Water Quality, said in a memo that the division has identified 80 farms in which lagoon levels have exceeded their maximum freeboard of 19 inches.

Freeboard is the level of liquid waste from the top of a lagoon. If the freeboard measures less than 12 inches, the state considers it an emergency situation.

Of the 80 lagoons identified as out of compliance, 12 were so full that ''the lagoon structure is at risk,'' Sullins wrote. The division is investigating discharges from three farms, she said.

One of the three discharges occurred on Mike Spell's farm in Sampson County. Paul Rawls, regional supervisor for the division office in Fayetteville, said the discharge happened because hog waste was sprayed just before it rained.

The waste flowed off the field into Buckhorn Creek, which flows into the Cape Fear River. Rawls said no environmental damage, such as fish kills, was observed or reported. He said a review is under way to determine what action to take against Spell, who could not be reached for comment.

Aerial assessment

Sullins wrote in her memo that the division wants to fly over hog farms to evaluate lagoon compliance but had been unable to because of the wet, cloudy weather. Susan Massengale, a spokeswoman for the division in Raleigh, said a flight is planned for later this week.

''Farmers who have self-reported are already documented, and what we are attempting to find out is if the problem is any larger than we already have knowledge,'' Sullins wrote.

Epting and Rick Dove, a member of the environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance, beat the state to the air Saturday. Although they saw only one farmer spraying hog waste, they found many lagoons that appeared to be nearly full.

The effects of a lagoon overflowing or breaching its banks could be disastrous, Dove said.

He said many of the lagoons he flew over Saturday contain more than 20 million gallons of waste. Once a lagoon begins to leak, it is often impossible to stop because the liquid carves out an ever-deepening gully in a matter of minutes, he said. The lagoons are often built near a creek bed.

''This waste is highly toxic to people, wildlife, groundwater, as well as our rivers and streams,'' Dove said. ''When the toxic hog waste reaches the stream, creek and river, it can kill everything in its path. The sediment can become impacted to the point where the consequences will last for years.''

On Thursday, Rawls said his office had received 15 or 16 reports of lagoons being out of compliance in the region, which includes Cumberland, Bladen, Robeson, Harnett, Scotland and Sampson counties. By Monday, that number had grown to 50. Massengale said the division's branch in Wilmington had identified 37 noncomplying lagoons as of Monday.

Farmers' reports

In all of the cases reported to the division in Fayetteville, Rawls said, the farmers themselves did the reporting. State statutes require them to.

''Each and every time we get these notifications, we consider it something significant and we need to look into it and we do,'' Rawls said.

Division of Water Quality inspectors verify the reports and the farmers' plans to deal with the problem, Rawls said.

No fines have been levied, he said, but the division continues to evaluate some of the farms.

''If a farmer sees the freeboard continue to rise, other actions will be warranted,'' Rawls said. ''We expect the farmer to take every action necessary to prevent a lagoon failure, and they do.''

The fact that Epting and Dove saw only one farmer spraying waste on Saturday, Rawls said, ''may be a testimonial that they are waiting for their fields to become suitable to apply waste.''

He said none of the farmers who reported a problem has called the office back to say it's been remedied.

The Fayetteville office is largely dependant on farmers reporting the problems. The office now has just one inspector to oversee 756 lagoons in the region, most of which are hog operations.

The office is budgeted for three inspectors, but one resigned about six months ago and another quit about three months later, Rawls said. He said the division is about to hire another inspector. Other people in his office also check on the farms, he said.


The farmers who do report high levels in their lagoons have few options to fix the problem.

Essentially, they can pump the waste out and haul it to another farm or a waste treatment system, or they can reduce their herds.

Sullins, who could not be reached for comment, wrote in her memo that some farms are hauling the waste away. She said she is aware of one farm that has reduced its herd.

Chuck Stokes, a Greenville hog farmer who owns a dozen lagoons, said none of the options is realistic. He said most farmers are in no position to take somebody else's waste. Reducing the herd, he said, would cripple him financially.

Regardless, Stokes said that when some of his lagoon levels exceeded the acceptable level, he obeyed the rules and called the Division of Water Quality.

''It makes it easier than them finding it themselves,'' Stokes said. ''They can't tell you to do anything. They just tell you good luck.

''If the rainfall keeps up, it's going to be a challenging situation.''

Stokes said he doesn't think many lagoons are in danger of overflowing.

''Another week or two of this and there are going to be some issues,'' he said Friday.

Rainfall levels

One option the state is exploring is whether rainfall on farms in 12 counties classifies as a storm dumping more rain in 24 hours than would typically happen once every 25 years.

If that classification is made, farmers would be provided some measures of relief, Sullins said in her memo. She didn't specify what those measures would be. Rawls said it would depend on each individual farm.

Dove, of the Waterkeeper Alliance, said the state employs the same 25-year-storm measure every time the lagoons get full.

Farmers ''have used this excuse to illegally discharge hog waste to our rivers and streams in huge amounts in 1995, 1998, 1999 and 2000,'' Dove said. ''Now it appears they want to do it again.

''We have just emerged from a five-year drought, and nothing in rainfall over the past few months appeared out of the ordinary to me. This exemption is nothing short of hogwash - a joke. But there is nothing funny about it.''

Heavy rains haven't been universal around the state. In Fayetteville, the average amount is down 4.28 inches from normal this year.

Dove believes the farmers have other options, including reducing their herds during the rainy season from October to March.

Farmers could find some relief soon. Application for new crops opened early this month. When the fields dry, the crops can be planted.

The weather also looks better. The forecast calls for no rain at least through Friday.

Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at barnesg@fayettevillenc.com or 486-3525.