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Circle Four Farms series: Foes fear major pollution from Circle Four hog farms

SHARE Circle Four Farms series: Foes fear major pollution from Circle Four hog farms

Originally published Monday, Sept. 14, 1998

A. True Ott works as a mortgage loan officer, but his passion is studying the chemistry of corporate farms.

He said his reading points to one conclusion about Circle Four Farms, the 250,000-hog operation near Milford: It will pollute Utah's air and water, and the effects will be worse than even he can imagine.

"Our aquifer here is rare and priceless and has to be protected with blood," Ott said. "We're prostituting our values, our heritage, our history for a mess of pottage."

Ott is a Cedar City resident and spokesman for Citizens for Responsible and Sustainable Agriculture, a vocal group of southern Utah residents who vehemently oppose Circle Four's expansion from Beaver County into Iron County - or anywhere else.

Ott said he entered the fray about a year ago when a rancher friend expressed concerns about Circle Four buying property near his animals' grazing areas. Ott thought his friend was overreacting at first, but he decided to do a little digging.

He called extension agents from large pork-producing states and read about hog waste's potential effects on the environment.

"Every place we researched, we found out this is not safe," Ott said. "This is not good."

He said growing mounds of evidence show that the lagoon system Circle Four uses to dispose of animal waste is "false technology."

But Circle Four's proponents say the system is the best technology available.

D. Steven Pollmann, Circle Four's general manager, said most of the 43 farm sites it will operate in Beaver and Iron counties by the end of this year will have a two-stage lagoon system.

Gary Farnsworth Player, geologist and vice president of Cedar City's Tahoma Companies Inc., which helped design Circle Four's lagoons, said hog waste is pumped from the farm buildings to the first, anaerobic lagoon, where micro-organisms "chew" on the nitrates and release nitrogen and oxygen into the air.

W hen the first-stage lagoon is almost full, a pipe allows liquid to flow to the second stage, where water evaporates and leaves behind waste that can be used as fertilizer when the lagoons are full in about 25 years.

"If it's correctly designed and correctly operated, it's the best way to go," Player said of the system.

Pollmann said the lagoons are lined, most often with a 40-millimeter-thick plastic layer on top of 8 inches of tightly packed clay.

"Environmental protection is far and away one of our top issues," he said. "We want to be good stewards. Our own business and our personal families could be jeopardized if we're not good stewards."

Don Ostler, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, said state regulations require Circle Four to dig two groundwater monitoring wells near each lagoon system. Circle Four must take samples from the wells and file quarterly reports, he said, while the division does its own annual testing of each well.

And while the lagoon system usually works well, Ostler said, it has not been perfect.

On Sept. 4, Circle Four reported that its engineers were starting to repair leaks found in two of the farm's evaporative lagoons.

A company press release said workers found the leaks when the plastic liners started swelling from trapped gases, a phenomenon known as "whaling." Pollmann said the trapped gases were associated with small leaks in the liners of the lagoons, which had been in operation for about 18 months.

He said the company reported the incidents to DWQ, pumped out the small volume of water that had been in the lagoons and is looking for ways to fix the problem.

"It's not exactly a nuclear disaster," Pollmann said. "The likelihood of having any contamination is pretty much zero."

Ostler said DWQ expected Circle Four to have some problems with its lagoons because the company has built almost 100 of them, and each is a major construction project.

"They're not just a hole in the ground," Ostler said. "They're engineered and constructed to meet some very rigid standards."

He said DWQ will continue to monitor the groundwater near the whaling lagoons, but it has yet to find any indicators of pollution.

"I am quite confident that any contamination, because of the small amount of water, would be extremely localized right there on the property where it could be managed very well," Ostler said.

Ott said CRSA already knew about whaling incidents in other waste lagoons.

"(Circle Four) told us that this would never whale," Ott said. "Their credibility is at least highly suspect."

Prior to the whaling incident, Ostler said, broken pipelines on the hog farms have allowed manure to flow on open ground three or four times. Each time, Circle Four has reported the incident and cleaned up the spills, which Ostler said were "insignificant."

More serious was an August 1996 incident in which wastewater was accidentally siphoned from a lagoon into one of the farm's water supply wells.

Ostler said Circle Four immediately pumped the well to remove the contaminated water and treated the well with chlorine. But the company did not report the incident to DWQ for almost six weeks.

DWQ fined Circle Four $6,800 for the incident, and some critics complained that penalty was much too small. But Ostler said the maximum fine DWQ could impose for a one-day event under its own rules would be $10,000.

"The environmental effect was none once it was cleaned up," he said. "The failure to report was a serious matter and not excusable, and that was probably the major basis of the fine."

Pollmann said he did not work at Circle Four when the incident occurred, so he does not know why the problem was not reported immediately.

"It was a negative experience, but at the same standpoint, you learn from those," he said.

Bob Walton, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club of Utah, said Circle Four has avoided some of the mistakes made on older hog farms in Oklahoma, Kansas and North Carolina, but he remains worried.

"It's my belief that (the lagoons) all leak, and it will permeate the clay and get in (the groundwater) eventually," Walton said. "I guarantee you there will be more problems. There's just too much waste to deal with."

Such concerns prompted the Sierra Club to call for a federal government moratorium on expansion or new construction of "concentrated animal feeding operations."

"When you're talking about hundreds of thousands, even millions of animals, nothing short of a municipal-type waste treatment facility should be employed," Walton said. "These massive waste lagoons are just the cheapest method available. We're talking about massive and very wealthy corporations here. You'd think they could spend a little more to protect our drinking-water sources."

In addition to groundwater safety issues, Ott said he is concerned about recent research into air pollution by scientists in North Carolina, a state that has seen its hog population mushroom to about 10 million in the past few years.

North Carolina's Division of Air Quality recently reported that the state's hog farms discharge at least 186 tons of ammonia into the air every day, according to an Associated Press story. The story said ammonia is the most potent form of nitrogen and can trigger algae blooms and fish kills in coastal waters.

While some of the ammonia falls in rain near waste lagoons, Ott said, much of it is converted into dry particles that can be carried more than 250 miles by the wind.

Since Utah receives about one-tenth the rain of North Carolina, Ott said, more dry ammonia particles may travel farther here. That could add to the Wasatch Front's pollution problem, he said.

Ott said nitrates in drinking water also have been linked to "blue baby syndrome." That disease may occur when nitrates deprive a baby of oxygen, harming its developing nervous system.

Ostler said Utah Department of Environmental Quality estimates show that, in the worst case scenario, "air deposition" of ammonia from Circle Four Farms would be minor and would not cause water quality problems. But he said DWQ is seeking more information on the issue.

And he said Ott and other critics will have the chance to talk with DWQ and Circle Four officials about the company's manure handling technology in a series of meetings starting Oct. 16.

Ott said this month's report of leaks in the lagoons should strengthen his hand in those talks.

"As time goes on, (problems) will show even more," he said. "What's frustrating to me is they have totally ignored credible evidence from other states that have had eight or nine years of lead (time) on Utah. This is no surprise to other states."

And if Circle Four continues to grow, he said, the resulting environmental problems in southern Utah may dwarf those seen elsewhere.

"Truth will prevail on this one . . .," Ott said. "It's a tough battle, but really everybody in Utah needs to be aware of it."