Nw kansas swine facility fined $152,000 – news – salina journal – salina, ks

State environmental and health regulators assessed fines of $152,000 against a prominent northwest Kansas hog operation for ignoring cease-and-desist orders to halt construction of unauthorized animal confinement buildings and waste holding facilities capable of serving tens of thousands of swine.

Documents obtained by The Topeka Capital-Journal show Nelson Farms owner Terry Nelson, working with family and employee partners through limited liability companies created to expand the business empire, failed to obtain permission from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment before starting to build facilities in Phillips and Norton counties.

When notified of the shortcomings, public records show, the companies apparently dismissed orders to stop construction.

The Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club filed a series of complaints about KDHE’s oversight of construction in a rural area near the Nebraska border. In both locations, neighbors registered procedural and environmental objections while expressing skepticism their opinions would make a difference.

Michelle Tharman, who lives near the Phillips County site, said she wasn’t notified about filing of the swine facility’s belated application in accordance with state law. She said waste from the hog facility would eventually pollute Prairie Dog Creek and infiltrate waters of the Harlan County Dam in Nebraska. She said odor emerging from the pig complex would find its way to her home and make fresh air a luxury.

Almena resident Casey Dole said he was bothered by the Nelson family’s plan for swine facilities in Norton County because the site was within the required separation distance of a habitable residence owned by his father. He said water and wastewater lines needed by the hog operation were installed improperly and without necessary permits.

The Nelson family homesteaded the Long Island, Kan., area during the 1870s. The family’s sixth generation is involved in a diversified business that includes a feed mill and elevator, swine operations, a 15,000-head cattle feedlot, 9,000 cultivated acres and 15,000 acres of grassland for about 2,000 cows. In addition, the Nelsons own First State Bank, which serves clients in northeast Kansas.

Aaron Popelka, an attorney with the Kansas Livestock Association and legal representative of the Nelsons on the swine projects, said the KDHE fine was being challenged. He declined to discuss specifics of KDHE’s conclusions, public complaints about the developments or actions of the Nelsons.

The expansion projects in Phillips and Norton counties hit regulatory headwinds after KDHE inspectors repeatedly documented illegal construction activity at the sites. In October, KDHE Secretary Susan Mosier ordered all work stopped until the state formally approved permit applications, construction plans and waste management programs, including waste retention lagoons or ponds.

Nelson, with assistance from Kansas Livestock Association staff, submitted planning documents to KDHE in October for a facility named Rolling Hills Pork in Norton County and a complex called Old Stone Pork in Phillips County. Rolling Hills would be able to accommodate 9,300 head, while Old Stone would be capable of handling 24,000 head.

No temporary or preliminary approval for those sites was granted by KDHE. The mandatory public comment period for both applications hadn’t been completed, but work continued at both locations. In addition, KDHE notified applicants the Old Stone Pork proposal was incomplete and the plan was deficient because it didn’t identify sufficient acreage for spraying hog waste on fields.

In November, KDHE officials reminded Nelson and his business associates in person, by telephone and by email that the lack of state approval of the applications forbade construction of the swine production facilities in both counties. Still, earth work was performed, concrete floors and walls were poured and other construction activity continued. KDHE files include photos of the progress.

John Mitchell, director of the environmental division at KDHE, signed orders in January sanctioning Nelson and his business associates $76,000 for violations of state law at the Rolling Hills Pork site and $76,000 for infractions of Kansas statute at the Old Stone Pork site. Mitchell and his bosses at the time, KDHE Secretary Mosier and Gov. Sam Brownback, have all left state government.

Nelson, who contributed at least $3,400 to Brownback’s political campaigns since 2010, endured a catastrophic hog barn fire in June that killed 2,000 sows and 7,000 piglets at the Husky Hog facility near Long Island. The insurance losses ran into the millions of dollars.

In a swine-profitability conference speech in February at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Nelson said firefighters fought the blaze while listening to the screams of thousands of hogs trapped in barns and burning to death. Firefighters saved 4,500 hogs in nearby confinement buildings.

Nelson decided to gift the undamaged barns to a limited liability company led by his son and daughter-in-law, Clarke and Julia Nelson, called Prairie Dog Pork. Nelson would continue to run Husky Hogs at the site and handle operations of Prairie Dog Pork. The ownership division was calculated to allow the two-owner complex to secure regulatory approval for a 60 percent increase in the number of confined hogs, a prospect prohibited for a single entity because of its proximity to a body of water.

Volland said the dubious ownership scramble undermined state law balancing interests of a private business with the public’s environmental and quality-of-life interests. The Sierra Club appealed the administrative order granting the side-by-side business arrangement and expansion of hog capacity at Husky Dog-Prairie Dog Pork.

The Nelson family’s decision to rapidly expand swine operations in Kansas amplified the challenge of finding enough farm laborers. The solution was an agreement with the Kansas Department of Corrections that provides 25 inmates from the Norton Correctional Facility, Nelson said.

A new conflict emerged March 29 when KDHE conducted an inspection of Nelson’s proposed site of a new gilt, or immature female pig, development facility. KDHE environmental inspector Dan Wells discovered dirt work was ongoing, despite lack of a plan approval. Wells said in an agency memo that he explained to Nelson it could take two or three months for the agency to complete the review process for the facility.