The western North Carolina dairy farm that pleaded guilty to allowing 11,000 gallons of cow feces into a nearby river used for drinking water and recreation promised to make a series of changes to its operations to prevent such spills in the future.
The Tap Root Dairy of Fletcher, N.C., filed an 11-point environmental compliance plan with the U.S. District Court last month, pledging to better train its employees and to more closely monitor the animal-waste lagoon that overflowed and spilled into the nearby French Broad River.
The river, which runs through and around the popular tourist destination of Asheville, N.C., supplies drinking water to more than 1 million people and is a frequent recreation spot, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which helped investigate the original incident. A recreation website boasts of the river’s “long, peaceful stretches” and “placid pools perfect for swimming.”
In 2012, however, the state of North Carolina listed part of the French Broad River as “impaired” for a type of fecal bacteria.
The initial incident began in 2012, when for 93 days the dairy operation – which maintains several hundred cows – didn’t properly monitor the lagoon system that’s supposed to collect solid and liquid animal waste. The lagoon system eventually overflowed, sending the 11,000 gallons of cow feces and other waste into the river, according to EPA spokeswoman Davina Marraccini.
In a state that boasts both a thriving agriculture industry and waters used for drinking and recreation, maintaining the health of the waterways is vital, officials said. While agriculture is important, Jill Westmoreland Rose, the acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, said that “it should not thrive at the expense of public health.”
The dairy – one of the largest in the state – and owner William F. “Billy” Johnston had previously pleaded guilty to Clean Water Act violations for the discharges. Last week, Johnston was sentenced to four years of probation, six months of which he has to spend in home detention. In addition, he was ordered to pay a $15,000 fine.
The dairy was also fined $80,000 and placed on a four-year probationary term and required to abide by the environmental compliance plan.
Among other things, that plan indicates that the company will beef up training of all new employees on environmental compliance; will construct new containment systems; and will install a new warning-light system to alert dairy managers when the animal waste is close to topping out.
Reached briefly by phone on Monday, Johnston had no comment.