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Hog heaven or hell? Neighbors can't agree

For the three generations of the Mayer family who raise alfalfa in emerald fields south of town, sunrise used to bring only the promise of another day of hard work.

But now, something less wholesome often accompanies dawn's first breeze - the stench of millions of gallons of hog waste.The aroma rouses sleepers, sending them staggering to slam windows or fleeing to the basement. "I've gagged in my own home," said Allen Mayer.

Yet, to the Mayers and about 50 other farm families who work the land in western Beaver County, the fermenting waste in hog sewage lagoons isn't the only thing that stinks about their newest neighbor, Circle Four Farms.

The arrival and expansion of the giant hog-farming operation, already the country's largest, has torn families apart and set neighbor against neighbor.

Worse, Circle Four, a joint venture by four of the East Coast's largest hog producers, has lied, corrupted the political system, fouled the air and threatened the semi-arid Utah desert's scarce water supply, opponents claim.

In short, they contend, the consortium of Smithfield Foods, Murphy Family Farms, Carroll's Foods and Prestage Farms is employing the same political tactics and mass-production techniques that caused the state of North Carolina in August to slap a moratorium on corporate hog farming.

"It's like the devil came to Milford," said Joey Leko, whose Green Diamond Ranch is just up the lane from the Mayer clan. "This has split this community right down the middle, so's one half won't even talk to the other."

But Circle Four Farms is just getting started in Milford, a town of 1,164 about 170 miles south of Salt Lake City.

By the end of the decade, Circle Four wants the 600,000-hog-a-year operation to anchor a string of integrated factory farms along a 25-mile corridor, quadrupling its annual yield to 2.5 million hogs.

Four years ago, when ground was broken, there was virtually no opposition. Locals called Circle Four an answer to prayers, and many still feel that way. After all, mining and the railroad were dead or declining and the city hadn't issued a building permit in 16 years.

Today, more than 60 homes and other buildings are under construction. Circle Four, headquartered in a neat new stucco building on Main Street, is the county's largest employer with 300 jobs and a payroll above $6 million.

"They've been a godsend," said Mayor Mary Wiseman, a 65-year-old physician's assistant whose house and city office are littered with pig knicknacks. "This town was dying."

The new availability of jobs averaging about $21,000 a year has slowed the bleed of young people to the city. The tax base is stronger and more diverse.

Patty Cherry, a waitress at the all-night Hong Kong Cafe on Main Street, knows only that three of her daughters and their husbands have found work on the farms.

"My family is together because of that farm," she said. "It seems to me that's a fair trade for a little smell."

Even Wiseman and other unabashed fans of the farm say Circle Four's assurances that the odor would be manageable have proved false.

Newspaper accounts of the 1993 groundbreaking quoted company officials as saying they planned to cover the lagoons and capture the gases to heat hog barns.

So far, only a relatively tiny, 3 million-gallon lagoon has been covered. That leaves roughly 80 open-air lagoons, each holding between 6 million and 27 million gallons of waste.

Circle Four developmental director Rob Adams said the company has encountered unexpected problems in dealing with the smell. For one, the company expected Utah's cool, dry climate to hold down the odor. Instead, it has slowed the growth of natural bacteria that break down the waste.

Opponents also are worried that Circle Four's operations will deplete or contaminate the deep underground aquifer that feeds the area's wells.

State Division of Water Quality officials say requirements that each of the waste lagoons be lined with compacted clay or an impermeable plastic liner will protect the groundwater.