Frederick Co. farmer ordered to scale back hog-raising operation

Judge says feedlot is too large to sidestep anti-pollution controls

May 14, 1999|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

A Frederick County man whose animal farm has triggered a statewide controversy has lost a key legal battle, after an administrative judge declared his 12,000-hog-per-year feedlot big enough to require an anti-pollution permit.

The decision filed last week gave Rocky Ridge farmer Rodney Harbaugh 20 days to scale back his hog-raising operation or secure a permit. The feedlot has roused the ire of neighbors, prompted Frederick County commissioners to pass the state's first moratorium on industrial-size hog feedlots and triggered a series of activist meetings to organize statewide opposition to big animal farms.

It has also prompted some area farmers to complain that their right to earn a living from their land is being trampled. In court pleadings, Harbaugh attorney Matthew Simmons argued that Maryland environmental officials have "no right to interfere with Harbaugh's operation of his farm."

But Administrative Law Judge Georgia Powell disagreed May 7, ordering Harbaugh to reduce the number of animals in his two big barns from the 4,000 he says he has to 2,389 hogs at any one time -- just below the legal threshold for state and federal anti-pollution regulations.

Under the judge's order, Harbaugh won't be allowed to fully use his two 200-foot-long hog barns until he convinces the Maryland Department of the Environment that he can get rid of the waste from 12,000 hogs a year without polluting local ground water, drinking wells or the trout stream flowing 500 feet from his farm. In the meantime, he must keep piling the manure in two deep pits underneath the barns, which are filling up fast.

No one involved in the legal dispute is calling the ruling a victory.

Simmons said Harbaugh has already filed an appeal. In legal pleadings, Harbaugh has claimed that his operation could not turn a profit if it were scaled back.

Harbaugh's neighbors said they will find it just as hard to live with the odors and gases from the 2,389 hogs that would be allowed under the judge's decision.

"It's just a messy situation, when you talk about that number of animals and the fact that nobody is monitoring them," said neighbor Bonnie Dancy, who runs a horse farm about a third of a mile from Harbaugh's barns. Twice last week, nighttime odors inside her house were "so bad they woke me up," keeping her sleepless and nauseated for hours, Dancy said.

Harbaugh's farm, which has been in his family for 70 years, was a small dairy operation until July, when he spent $600,000 to build the two hog barns. He takes in 30- to 40-pound piglets under contract to PMI Agriculture Inc. and ships them out about four months later weighing 220 to 250 pounds.

The change in his operation was made without any environmental permits or public notice. County officials required only an electrical permit for the barns.

Harbaugh said in court pleadings that an MDE staffer who toured the property did not tell him he would need a Clean Water Act pollution-control permit, required by the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency for the largest animal feedlots.

The large contract lots, which are replacing smaller-scale livestock operations nationwide, have caused water pollution problems in North Carolina and the Midwest and have triggered a wave of state and local laws aimed at checking their spread.

In his legal pleadings, Harbaugh said his farm's design makes water pollution problems virtually impossible. His application for the anti-pollution permit is pending.

Pub Date: 5/14/99

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