'Factory' farming proposal prompts Kent Co. protests Permit sought to raise 3,000 hogs in warehouse

February 06, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

A proposal to raise 3,000 hogs in a warehouse in Kent County has sparked protests from environmentalists, local officials and other farmers on the rural Upper Eastern Shore, who contend that such modern "factory" farming threatens drinking water and the Chesapeake Bay.

Anthony Guessregen and Patricia Downs, owners of the 328-acre Willow Pond Farm near Millington, are seeking a state permit to spray their fields annually with more than 4 million gallons of wastewater from the hog "finishing" operation. Such an operation prepares livestock for market.

If approved, it could well be the largest such hog-growing operation in Maryland, state environmental officials said.

The couple plan to raise hogs ina 33,000-square-foot "finishing house" to be built on their farm. Waste from the operation would be collected in two lagoons covering 5 acres, and wastewater from the ponds would be sprayed as fertilizer to help grow crops.

Hog waste from leaking or overflowing lagoons has fouled streams and caused fish kills in North Carolina, where large-scale pork production has become a major industry and a huge environmental controversy. Maryland regulators say they plan to avoid similar problems here.

"We are concerned about this operation," said Michael Eisner of the state Department of the Environment, which is reviewing the couple's application. "The last thing we want to do is be lax."

The state plans to seek public comment on the application at 7 o'clock tonight at the Millington fire hall.

State agricultural officials, who have helped the couple design lagoons and the waste-spraying system, support the proposal.

A report by the Maryland Department of Agriculture says manure and wastewater from the hogs pose no threat to nearby waters "with proper operation and maintenance."

"It's a very clean operation," said Patricia Downs, who noted that she and her husband live on the farm. The couple bought the property two years ago and moved there from Long Island, N.Y., last year, she said. They need the extra income from raising livestock, she said, and plan to sign a contract with a franchising company. But local opponents contend that the lagoons are too close to wetlands and a tributary of the Chester River. They say the farm is marshy and flood-prone, making it unsuitable for spraying with wastewater.

"We want to preserve our air and water from these operations," said Cindy Simpkins, whose 88-acre farm backs up to the proposed hog-finishing operation.

Simpkins, 34, said she is not against pigs, since she and her husband raise about 100, along with corn and soybeans. But she said she feared that drinking-water wells and/or surface waters could become contaminated if the lagoons spill over or leak, or if waste is sprayed improperly. A creek, Dead Branch, flows within 60 feet of one proposed lagoon.

"I have nothing against these people," said Jan Graham of Galena, who recently organized an environmental group called HazTrak. "I'm against factory farms."

The Millington City Council also has weighed in against the proposal. In a letter in August, John T. Piposzar, senior councilman, said the community's sewage treatment plant could be disabled if the lagoon leaked or overflowed, polluting the creek flowing through town.

Eisner said environmental officials are considering stringent conditions on whatever permit might be issued.

Pub Date: 2/06/97

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