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TCEQ VS. THE PEOPLE Tom and Marion Hill’s 350-acre ranch in Leon County would be the envy of any couple looking to retire to the country. It has wildflowers in grassy fields, two springfed ponds stocked with bass and catfish, small creeks and towering stands of trees. The Hills have owned this land for three decades and spend most of their time in a small home near the edge of their property. Devout Christians, the couple hosts retreats and church services for youth in a small chapel. Or at least they used to. About three years ago, the Hills say their idyllic rural life was interrupted when their neighbor, Tom Crowson, got into the chicken-growing business for poultry giant Sanderson Farms Inc. With no notice, eight 500foot barns went up 1,000 feet from their home. These are not the family farms of yore. Each barn holds 27,000 chickens, broilers pumped full of antibiotics and arsenic-laced feed to make them grow from chicks to full-grown in 63 days. About 1 million chickens are raised next door to the Hills, at Triple C Farms, every year. Known in the industry as concentrated animal feeding operations, growers for Sanderson Farms have built almost 400 barns in a four-county region east of Waco since 2007. That’s about 50 million chickens every yearand they produce a tremendous amount of waste and manure, somewhere in the neighborhood of half a billion pounds each year, most of which ends up spread on local fields as fertilizer. Residents of small towns like Mexia, Jewett, and Marquez describe the influx of feeding operations as an invasion, pitting rural residents against big agribusiness, with small-time growers caught in the middle. “It kinda reminds me of the range wars we used to have,” Tom Hill says. The Hills and their neighbors worry about the effect all that waste is having on the air, water, and land. Ann Hill keeps a scrapbook illustrating the problems photographs of chunks of partially ground-up chickens spread on nearby fields, rust-colored water in their ponds they say is runoff from the feeding operation next door, and odor logs documenting the stench. “You put 25,000 chickens in a 20,000-square-foot Tom and Marion Hills’ grassroots campaign against Sanderson Farms PHOTO BY THOMAS BACON “They come out and go sniff, sniff, sniff and say, I don’t smell anything.” “They shuffle paper more than anything else, because there’s no real penalties.” Seven hours after the fire started, TCEQ decided to do some air monitoring. “With the media attention this event is getting, I think it would be best to conduct air monitoring,” wrote Kelly Ruble, a Region 14 employee, in an email. “The old saying ‘negative data is better than no data.” The air monitoring equipment TCEQ usedfinallywas incapable of testing for hydrofluoric acid. In another crisis moment this March, when a gas well owned by Devon Energy Corp. exploded in rural Wise County, injuring two workers, Vickery asked Sadlier if air monitoring was needed. Sadlier responded: “I don’t believe sothe fire is out. We spoke to EPAthey contemplated sending the START unit but ended up doing building for 63 days, and, yeah, they’re gonna stink,” says David Deffner, until recently a doctor in nearby Mexia, one of several people who have given up and moved away. “To put it bluntly: it smells like chickenshit,” says Bob Crider, a retired high-school science teacher who lives near Mexia. The intensity varies, he says, from day to day and even minute to minute. It’s worst as the sun goes down and winds recede. Sometimes it’s a musty smell; others, when the chickens are near the end of their growing cycle, it’s horrific. “I have what I call my stink level,” says Crider. “When it gets up around 8 or 9, it will almost make you wretch.” Some people in the area have taken to wearing dust masks while outside. Accustomed to working outdoors, many have become reacquainted with the insides of their homes. They’ve also become acquainted with TCEQ and are less than impressed. For one thing, Texas law makes it extremely difficult for the public to file a nuisance suit once a concentrated feeding operation has been up and running for a year. Most dry-litter poultry operations are required to develop a water quality management plan, but the documents are kept secret, making it difficult for people to know whether growers are following the rules. “How do you know someone is violating a plan you can’t see?” asks Eric Allmon, an Austin environmental attorney and concentrated feeding operation expert. That means feeding operation neighbors must rely on state inspectors and their noses to enforce nuisance odor laws. “They come out and go sniff, sniff, sniff,” Deffner says, “and say, I don’t smell anything.” Part of the problem is that the wind is mercurial. Inspectors have 18 hours to respondlong enough for odor to dissipate or shift somewhere else. But the numbers speak volumes: Between 2006 and 2009, the number of feeding operation complaints filed with TCEQ Region 9’s office in Waco soared from 12 to 169. Since September, there have been 168, with five months yet to go in the fiscal year. Only two enforcement notices have been issued in the past two years. Neither has resulted in a penalty. That is the fundamental problem in both feeding operations and the TCEQ: There are no real consequences to business as usual. “If you boil it all down, they [TCEQ] shuffle paper more than anything else,” says Crider, “because there’s no real penalties.” Sometimes the public is shut out of the process altogether. In April 2009, the commissioners voted 2-1 to renew a permit for Texas Industries Inc.’s cement plant near Midlothian. The kiln, which burns hazardous waste for fuel, is the largest source of industrial pollution in the smog-choked Metroplex. Clean-air advocates had been agitating for two decades to get the plant to install additional pollution controls. Its permit renewal, which only comes around every 10 years, seemed like the perfect opportunity to push for changes. Almost 200 citizens asked the TCEQ to grant a public hearing, seemingly an uncontroversial request. Commissioners voted 3-0 to deny a hearing. State law, they agreed, prevented them from doing so in cases where a company isn’t asking to pollute more than currently allowed. Still, then-Commissioner Soward, frequently the odd man out in controversial 10 1 THE TEXAS OBSERVER WWW.TEXASOBSERVER.ORG