The Georgia Environmental Protection Division has taken enforcement action against LHR Farms, a septic waste disposal facility in White County.
The consent order was signed Tuesday by EPD director Carol Couch and agreed to by LHR’s owner, Gainesville businessman John Hulsey.
In addition to complying with a long list of corrective actions, Hulsey is required to pay the EPD $25,000 for environmental violations.
LHR has been operating since 1996 on a 350-acre property near the Telford Hulsey Industrial Park in southern White County. It accepts waste pumped out of septic tanks throughout the Southeast, and also processes waste from restaurant grease traps.
Residents living near LHR have complained for years about odors, flies and other problems that they believe are harming their health and reducing their property values.
In August, about a dozen families filed suit against Hulsey and LHR. The case has not yet gone to trial, and the plaintiffs are not allowed to speak to the media.
Residents’ complaints also triggered an investigation by the EPD. The agency learned in June 2007 that Hulsey did not have a permit to spray treated wastewater onto his fields. In October 2007, the EPD issued a consent order requiring Hulsey to submit a plan so he could get a land application permit.
On Jan. 18, 2008, and again on April 8, EPD inspectors visited LHR and found numerous violations of state environmental rules.
According to EPD records, LHR didn’t follow the required schedule for sampling and testing the effluent, and its overall volume was too high. The EPD’s own tests found too much fecal bacteria in the effluent and too much nitrate in the groundwater.
LHR also was cited for accepting wastewater from a Gainesville dry-cleaning business and accepting more than 200,000 gallons of biosolids from Gainesville’s Linwood sewage treatment plant. LHR doesn’t have a permit to process those kinds of waste.
On June 23, the EPD released a notice of these violations and asked LHR to correct them. The consent order issued this week addresses those violations and describes the terms that Hulsey has agreed to.
He has 60 days to submit a plan for ensuring that the maximum daily flow of effluent is not exceeded; that no spray irrigation takes place when it’s raining; that waste placed in underground tanks be removed and processed within seven days; and that LHR doesn’t accept any unpermitted categories of waste.
Within 30 days, LHR also must submit a plan for making sure the site’s groundwater meets the same pollution standards as drinking water.
Within 90 days, LHR must submit an engineering assessment showing whether its underground storage tanks are structurally sound and free of leaks.
Hulsey was given 30 days to pay a $25,000 settlement for the violations described on June 23. If he fails to comply with any of the requirements in the consent order, he will be fined $2,000 a month until the situation is corrected.
It is not clear what effect, if any, the EPD’s consent order will have on the pending lawsuit.
Cooper Knowles, an attorney for the residents, believes it might bolster their case.
"LHR’s public relations firm is trying to make it sound like LHR is just a regular farm," he said. "But it’s clear from the first paragraph of the order what LHR really is: a facility for disposing of sewage sludge. It also proves that they have continued to operate in an unlawful manner."
Hulsey’s attorney, Greg Blount, believes the EPD document will be inconsequential to the case.
"The order did not address odors or off-site impacts, so there’s nothing in it that proves LHR is a nuisance (to the neighbors)," he said. "Also, nothing in the order can be used as evidence in court."
The EPD order provides a stark contrast to another document released last month. On Dec. 15, the Georgia Division of Public Health issued an assessment of LHR Farms, concluding that the facility posed no threat to public health or to the environment.
However, Public Health’s report was based on a visit to the site and a survey of the neighborhood, and did not take into account any of the violations cited by the EPD.
Gary Hopkins, who operates a business near LHR Farms but is not involved in the lawsuit, said he was mystified as to why certain details were omitted from the Public Health report.
"We were pretty baffled over the thing," he said.
But Hopkins said he likes much of what he sees in the EPD order.
"If (LHR) was managed properly, we wouldn’t have a problem with it being here," he said. "Mr. Hulsey has stepped up to the plate and toned things down. The odors aren’t as bad anymore. But the people up here don’t trust him because of the things he’s done in the past."
Hopkins doesn’t think EPD should allow Hulsey to be in charge of environmental monitoring at LHR.
"I think they should require him to hire a third party to do the testing," he said.
Hulsey no longer does interviews with the media but communicates through a public relations firm, Jackson Spaulding. On Thursday, Hulsey released a written statement about the EPD consent order.
"The alleged issues took place 10-18 months ago as we were fine-tuning our new land application system," he wrote. "We will work with the EPD to address the technical conditions outlined in the report."
Hulsey also noted that the consent order does not constitute an admission of guilt.
"We will continue to run a clean, efficient operation that serves the business community of North Georgia with minimal impact on our neighbors," the statement read.