Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Residents of a small community in North Georgia are trying to get our voices heard. They've been trying for a while now to little avail.

The residents are the neighbors of LHR Farms & Rocking H Ranch. For over twelve years they have been complaining to their local government.

LHR Farms, a waste-disposal operation that processes material pumped from septic tanks and grease traps all over North Georgia. Day after day, week after week, year after year trucks dump the stuff no one likes to deal with: septage from residential tanks and commercial grease from restaurants. After being treated on-site, some of the solids are removed and taken to landfills. The rest of the material is spread or sprayed on fields on the property.

Nearby residents are tired of smelling it. They are tired of their health being affected of it and they are tired of no one listening.

Who can blame them?

Anyway, LHR Farms, owned by John Hulsey, has been in operation since 1996. Almost anyone who regularly travels through White County on U.S. 129 has no doubt wondered about the source of an overpowering odor.

"It's a rotten, sick, decaying smell," Sandy Alexander, who lives directly across the street on Joe Turner Road told the Gainesville Times last January. "It will stimulate your gag reflex. We can't sit outside."

Alexander's 26-acre property has been owned by her husband's family for six decades. For the first 10 years of LHR's existence, the Alexanders didn't complain about the farm because they raise poultry themselves, and they understand that odors are an unavoidable part of agricultural life.

"But about two years ago, the situation became absolutely unbearable," Alexander said.

These people have been patient, lord knows how, but they have.

They've been patient while local and state officials dithered, while bureaucratic state regulations allowed the problems to continue.

Last year, Alexander began a personal quest to learn whether she and her neighbors are being harmed by pollution from the site. After being diagnosed with a kidney tumor in May, she drew on her background as a nurse to research the topic.

"I discovered that cadmium and other heavy metals (in sludge) can cause certain types of kidney cancer," she said. "Then I started checking around and found other neighbors bordering the farm, all of whom were on well water, who also had kidney diseases."

Along came Peggy Rutter (pictured here) who lived about a mile from Alexander. She formed a group called North Georgia Against Spreading Septage (whose website has provided lots of the info you are now reading). The owner of LHR Farms actually filed suit to stop Peggy's website from publishing information. He failed.

Rutter's chief concern is that no government agency is checking for pollution in the areas surrounding LHR - with good reason.

Earnest Earn, a coordinator with EPD, said Hulsey's operation was permitted by the White County Health Department environmental services group when he started land applying septic waste.

Then in February 2005, the state passed House Bill 54, effectively removing the requirement that septic waste disposal facilities located in counties without zoning get written approval from their county governments. In essence, the law gave Hulsey the right to operate under a letter from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Rutter and Alexander both believe that the amount of waste being processed at LHR has increased dramatically over the past few years. Alexander began counting the number of trucks going into the farm and estimated that the farm must be processing about 175,000 gallons a day, based on the average load per truck.

Peggy is a go getter.

In a letter dated five months ago to White County Manager Alton Brown, a water and soil analyst recommended that LHR Farms cease its spray irrigation in south White County until more testing could be completed.

That spraying, however, has not ceased and the results of the testing were not shared with the public.

The latest water and air test results conducted by Dr. Eberhard Essich of Appalachian Water & Soil Analysis, Inc., on sites near LHR Farms have been made public due to a freedom of information request by, you guessed it, Peggy Rutter.

The owner of LHR farms says there is no problem.

Commenting on an article about the controversy on Topic News, Tiffany wrote:

"My Mom lives RIGHT across the road from this place. In 2000 she began getting sick with a compromised immune system and now has to receive monthly immune globulin treatments that are in the excess of $5,000 a month. My sister has also been having "colon problems". Both of their problems can easily be linked to contaminated water and air since they drink the county water. Also, my daughter is supposed to attend Mossy Creek, but I refuse to let her go to a school and be at risk of drinking the contaminated water. It is a shame that we can't even drink pure water in the mountains."

Tiffany is far from alone in her concerns.

Old Highway 75 South resident Angela Nickolaus says she's lived near LHR Farms for nearly three years, and never had upper-respiratory ailments until she moved there from the “other side” of White County.

“I'm only 41 years old,” Nickolaus told the White County News. “My doctors said I have tumors and cysts in my nasal passages and sinus cavities. I'm almost always congested. I take over-the-counter medicines like Allegra and nothing ever helps. I also have kidney problems.”

Nickolaus said her hair has begun falling out “in clumps.”

“What concerns me more is that my 17-year-old daughter's hair has started falling out,” she said.

Nickolaus and her family are still on well water, but says she is now buying bottled water for drinking.

Perhaps, the most significant point of this whole story is summed up best by the White County News:

"Though the county has wisely hired an environmental law firm to help it negotiate a voluntary monitoring agreement with LHR Farms and has paid for water testing, county officials are not leading the charge for change."

The driving force behind the fight to protect county residents' health and safety, not to mention the environment, has come from the residents themselves."

Peggy Rutter, Sandy Alexander, Susan Kruzdlo, Gary Hopkins and others who live or work near LHR Farms want to put a stop to any environmental and health risks that could be caused by the septic waste disposal site."

Concerned residents have gained strength for their cause by banding together."

Rutter founded NGASS, North Georgia Against Septage Spreading."

She and Alexander went to court last January to fight for their right of free speech, to be allowed to continue criticizing LHR Farms operation and asking hard questions."

Rutter and her husband, Newt Rutter, have spent money out of pocket to pay for open records requests, to determine what LHR Farms brings in to its facility."

Likewise Hopkins, a partner in Plastek Werks, Inc., has paid for air testing to be conducted, to determine if LHR Farms operation has adversely impacted air quality."

Alexander is working with Dr. Betsy Kagey, a chief epidemiologist with DHR, and Dr. David Westfall, District 2 Public Health Director, on health issues related to LHR Farms."

Alexander passed out community health surveys earlier this week to south White County residents so that medical experts can identify the community's needs and medical issues."

It shouldn't have to be this way.

But across this great land of ours, it too often is!

Thank goodness for the good citizens who stand up, organize themselves, and fight back.

The following is from the Gainesville, Georgia Times.

White County residents sue septic disposal business

After almost a year of protesting against a septic waste disposal facility in southern White County, some residents have decided to take a more drastic step.

Earlier this month, a dozen families and one local business filed a lawsuit against LHR Farms and its owner, Gainesville resident John Hulsey.

They claim that odors and pollution from the farm have made them ill and prevented them from enjoying the use of their property. They accuse LHR of trespass, nuisance and negligence, and seek compensation for the alleged harm done.

They also seek punitive damages for LHR’s "willful and intentional conduct, bad faith and conscious indifference."

"(The lawsuit) is a last resort, but it’s the only thing left to do," said Susan Kruzdlo, one of the plaintiffs. "It’s a very sad situation."

LHR Farms began operating in 1996 on a 350-acre site just south of White County’s Telford Hulsey Industrial Park. The only facility of its kind in the region, it accepts waste from septic tanks and restaurant grease traps, discharging most of it into the ground.

LHR also was spraying some of the septic waste onto fields until June 2007, when the Georgia Environmental Protection Division realized that the farm didn’t have a permit for land application.

EPD only learned about the situation after receiving numerous complaints about foul odors in the area.

In October 2007, EPD issued a consent order requiring LHR to apply for a permit and to make sure its effluent didn’t exceed pollution standards.

EPD inspectors visited the site on Jan. 18 and again on April 8. On both occasions, they found many violations of state environmental rules, including spraying in the rain, failing to sample effluent in November and December, poor operation and maintenance of the facility, too much fecal bacteria in the effluent (three violations), too much nitrate in the groundwater (five violations) and excessive flow of effluent.

In addition, LHR was cited for accepting wastewater from a dry-cleaning business and for accepting more than 200,000 gallons of biosolids from the Linwood wastewater treatment plant in Gainesville. LHR is not permitted to process those types of waste.

On June 23, EPD sent LHR a notice listing all these violations, asking that they be corrected.

"We met with LHR Farms on the violations, and we are still working out how it should be resolved," said Jane Hendricks, manager of the EPD’s wastewater permitting and enforcement.

There are two possibilities, she said. They could reach a negotiated settlement, which may require LHR to pay a fine. If there is no settlement, EPD may have to issue an administrative order, which requires corrective action but does not include a fine.

"When we met with them, they provided a lot of explanations," Hendricks said. "They’d say, ‘Yes, we made a mistake, we’ll correct it.’"

But if "mistake" implies an inadvertent action, EPD still is trying to figure out how some things happened. For example, Hendricks said LHR accepted waste from Linwood not just once, but at least 36 times.

"We are looking into taking action on Linwood," she said, adding that Gainesville could be liable if the waste was knowingly sent to an unapproved facility.

Kelly Randall, director of Gainesville Public Utilities, said he hasn’t heard anything from EPD about LHR Farms.

"We have a contract with Earth Products in Plains, Ga., which mixes sludge with peanut shells. Normally, sludge from the digesters (part of the wastewater treatment plant) would go there," Randall said.

"But when the old Linwood plant was demolished, there was still some sludge in the old digesters. A construction contractor handled that, and the contractor was supposed to dispose of it at a permitted facility."

Sandy Alexander, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said neighbors are frustrated because EPD seems powerless to do anything about LHR Farms.

"The EPD does not have the funds or staff to monitor (Hulsey) as he needs to be monitored," she said. "He thinks the rules don’t apply to him."

Peggy Rutter, leader of a protest group called North Georgia Against Spreading Septage, said that’s what prompted the lawsuit. She believes EPD is dragging its feet on taking action because of what she calls "good old boy politics."

Critics point to a 2005 Georgia law that was passed specifically to exempt LHR Farms from local jurisdiction. The bill was sponsored in the state legislature by two of Hulsey’s friends, Rep. Carl Rogers and then-Sen. Casey Cagle, critics say.

Hulsey could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday. He no longer does interviews regarding LHR and has hired a public relations firm, Jackson Spalding, to handle media inquiries.

"I haven’t talked to Mr. Hulsey in a few weeks, and I haven’t heard about this (lawsuit), so I’m out of the loop," said Brian Brodrick, spokesman for Jackson Spalding.

Hulsey’s environmental attorney, Greg Blount, is out of town this week, and unavailable for comment. His Gainesville attorney, Ed Hartness, could not be reached Tuesday.

At Hulsey Environmental Services, Hulsey’s plumbing and septic business in Gainesville, a woman who answered the phone said, "We know of no lawsuit against us. We have no comment."

Donald Stack, an Atlanta environmental attorney who agreed to take the LHR neighbors’ case on a contingency basis, said the lawsuit was filed in White County Superior Court on Aug. 1 and defendants were given 45 days to respond.

"The point is to bring attention to what’s occurring," he said. "There’s clearly property devaluation (to the residents). The goal is to have Hulsey and the farm be a good neighbor."

Stack said a second lawsuit may be filed in federal court, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act. But he said he’s not trying to shut down LHR Farms.

"(Hulsey) has a right to run his business," he said.

Though the lawsuit requests a jury trial, Stack said it probably will never go to a jury.

"More than 90 percent of our cases are eventually settled out of court," he said.

In a way, the neighbors’ lawsuit might be considered payback. On Jan. 9, Hulsey filed a lawsuit for a restraining order against Rutter and Alexander, alleging that their protests, including yard signs and a Web site, were hurting his business’ reputation.

Two days later, Superior Court Judge Lynn Alderman presided over the case in the Lumpkin County courthouse, where the defendants argued that Hulsey was trying to interfere with their right to free speech. But before Alderman could issue a ruling, attorneys for both sides met and decided to negotiate a compromise.

With the latest lawsuit, Rutter said the plaintiffs aren’t really interested in money; they just want a better quality of life. Ultimately, she hopes the legal action will pressure Hulsey to stop operating LHR Farms voluntarily.

"I understand that waste is a fact of life, but if it’s disposed of properly, you shouldn’t have the odors and pollution," she said.

But she’s skeptical that LHR ever will be operated in an environmentally sensitive manner.

"(Hulsey) didn’t follow the consent order he’s already under," she said. "When it’s all said and done, I hope he leaves this county."

On Wednesday morning, Brodrick issued a prepared statement from Hulsey.

"It is unfortunate that a few isolated individuals have filed a lawsuit against LHR Farms," Hulsey wrote.

"The allegations in their complaint are simply not true."

Hulsey accused the plaintiffs of trying to destroy a "model environmentally sustainable agricultural operation."

"We are confident the truth is on our side," he wrote, "and we look forward to offering the facts to an objective body and putting this situation behind us."

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