Large-scale hog operation raises stink in Kent County Farmer's plan to raise 3,000 swine sparks environmental worries

February 17, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

MILLINGTON -- Anthony Guessregen sees himself as just another farmer trying to eke out a living from his land. But others in this rural Kent County community, including some farmers, say the 35-year-old former fisherman from Long Island, N.Y., gives agriculture a bad name.

Guessregen and his wife, Patricia, plan to raise 3,000 hogs on their 313-acre farm nearby. Rather than wallow in the mud, though, these porkers will spend four months bulking up in stalls inside a "finishing house" before being trucked to slaughter.

Modern hog farming is seeking a toehold on Maryland's upper Eastern Shore, and critics fear for their drinking water and for the Chesapeake Bay.

"Are we going to face an ecological disaster, like what happened in North Carolina?" Millie Ludwig, an environmental activist from neighboring Cecil County, asked at a recent public meeting in Millington on the proposed hog farm.

"If we have anything to say about it, you won't," replied Jeffrey Rein, deputy wastewater permits chief for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

In North Carolina, large-scale pork production has been blamed for polluting wells and killing fish.

Agriculture already reigns here. One neighbor of the Guessregens raises pigs the old-fashioned way, in an outdoor pen. But the proposed warehouse full of swine would generate as much waste as a town of 12,000 people in the ecologically sensitive headwaters of the Chester River.

"People are very upset," said Del. Wheeler R. Baker, a Democrat whose district includes Kent and Queen Anne's counties. The three-hour public meeting drew 160 people -- almost half the town's population -- who complained that the animals' waste would generate foul odors, draw flies, and taint streams and ground water.

Indeed, Guessregen said one irate protester at an earlier public meeting threatened to kill him.

"This is as close to a modern-day lynching as you can get in America right now," he said, suggesting that some opponents are more upset by his New York origins than his hogs.

Guessregen contends his operation, designed with the help of state and federal agriculture agencies, poses no threat to the environment. His application for a ground-water discharge permit being reviewed by the environment department, which will hold another public hearing.

"As far as we're concerned, it's a done deal. There's nothing they can do to stop us," he said.

What most upsets people are plans for two lagoons, covering five acres, that would store up to 15 million gallons of diluted hog waste. Waste water from the lagoons would be sprayed as fertilizer on nearby croplands.

Dead Branch Creek, which joins with other streams to form the Chester River two miles away in Millington, flows 60 feet from where Guessregen plans to build the lagoons. The water table there is less than four feet below ground -- and in some spots on the farm the surface is saturated.

"If he mismanages this waste system in any way, shape or form, it can mess things up around here for years," said Cindy Simpkins, whose 88-acre farm is next door to Guessregen's. She and her husband, Olan, raise 100 pigs but store the manure dry rather than in a large lagoon.

"We send maybe 10 pigs a month to market," she said. "He [Guessregen] mass produces a product. To me, it's a factory."

"I'm a farmer," countered Guessregen. "You have chicken businesses up and down the Delmarva Peninsula. I'm doing nothing different."

There was no public outcry when "factory" hog farming took hold in eastern North Carolina in the early 1990s, making that state the nation's second-largest pork producer after Iowa. Oblivious regulators placed virtually no controls on the operations, many of which raised pigs on contract with major companies like Smithfield Foods.

Then, two years ago, a lagoon built to store hog waste ruptured, spilling 25 million gallons into a river and causing a massive fish kill. Other spills followed.

A recent survey also found nitrates -- an ingredient of animal and human waste -- in one out of three drinking-water wells near large hog farms and unsafe levels in nearly 10 percent. Infants can develop a potentially fatal blood disorder if fed formula mixed with nitrate-laden water.

In Maryland, hog farming has been declining -- at least until now. According to state statistics, 900 farmers reported having 77,000 pigs last year -- a 10 percent drop since 1995 in the number of farms and a 36 percent reduction in the overall animal population.

But large animal herds pose extra environmental concerns because of the massive amounts of waste they generate. A hog, fattened from 50 pounds to 250 pounds in just four months, generates four times the waste that an adult person does.

Until recently, Maryland environmental officials did little to regulate large farm animal herds. The state relied mainly on voluntary efforts from farmers to control the environmental impact of their agricultural practices.

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