0820LHRaudWhite County resident Peggy Rutter talks about why neighbors sued LHR Farms.
After almost a year of protesting against a septic waste disposal facility in southern White County, some residents have decided to take a more drastic step.
Earlier this month, a dozen families and one local business filed a lawsuit against LHR Farms and its owner, Gainesville resident John Hulsey.
They claim that odors and pollution from the farm have made them ill and prevented them from enjoying the use of their property. They accuse LHR of trespass, nuisance and negligence, and seek compensation for the alleged harm done.
They also seek punitive damages for LHR’s "willful and intentional conduct, bad faith and conscious indifference."
"(The lawsuit) is a last resort, but it’s the only thing left to do," said Susan Kruzdlo, one of the plaintiffs. "It’s a very sad situation."
LHR Farms began operating in 1996 on a 350-acre site just south of White County’s Telford Hulsey Industrial Park. The only facility of its kind in the region, it accepts waste from septic tanks and restaurant grease traps, discharging most of it into the ground.
LHR also was spraying some of the septic waste onto fields until June 2007, when the Georgia Environmental Protection Division realized that the farm didn’t have a permit for land application.
EPD only learned about the situation after receiving numerous complaints about foul odors in the area.
In October 2007, EPD issued a consent order requiring LHR to apply for a permit and to make sure its effluent didn’t exceed pollution standards.EPD inspectors visited the site on Jan. 18 and again on April 8. On both occasions, they found many violations of state environmental rules, including spraying in the rain, failing to sample effluent in November and December, poor operation and maintenance of the facility, too much fecal bacteria in the effluent (three violations), too much nitrate in the groundwater (five violations) and excessive flow of effluent.
In addition, LHR was cited for accepting wastewater from a dry-cleaning business and for accepting more than 200,000 gallons of biosolids from the Linwood wastewater treatment plant in Gainesville. LHR is not permitted to process those types of waste.
On June 23, EPD sent LHR a notice listing all these violations, asking that they be corrected.
"We met with LHR Farms on the violations, and we are still working out how it should be resolved," said Jane Hendricks, manager of the EPD’s wastewater permitting and enforcement.
There are two possibilities, she said. They could reach a negotiated settlement, which may require LHR to pay a fine. If there is no settlement, EPD may have to issue an administrative order, which requires corrective action but does not include a fine.
"When we met with them, they provided a lot of explanations," Hendricks said. "They’d say, ‘Yes, we made a mistake, we’ll correct it.’"
But if "mistake" implies an inadvertent action, EPD still is trying to figure out how some things happened. For example, Hendricks said LHR accepted waste from Linwood not just once, but at least 36 times.
"We are looking into taking action on Linwood," she said, adding that Gainesville could be liable if the waste was knowingly sent to an unapproved facility.
Kelly Randall, director of Gainesville Public Utilities, said he hasn’t heard anything from EPD about LHR Farms.
"We have a contract with Earth Products in Plains, Ga., which mixes sludge with peanut shells. Normally, sludge from the digesters (part of the wastewater treatment plant) would go there," Randall said.
"But when the old Linwood plant was demolished, there was still some sludge in the old digesters. A construction contractor handled that, and the contractor was supposed to dispose of it at a permitted facility."
Sandy Alexander, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said neighbors are frustrated because EPD seems powerless to do anything about LHR Farms.
"The EPD does not have the funds or staff to monitor (Hulsey) as he needs to be monitored," she said. "He thinks the rules don’t apply to him."
Peggy Rutter, leader of a protest group called North Georgia Against Spreading Septage, said that’s what prompted the lawsuit. She believes EPD is dragging its feet on taking action because of what she calls "good old boy politics."
Critics point to a 2005 Georgia law that was passed specifically to exempt LHR Farms from local jurisdiction. The bill was sponsored in the state legislature by two of Hulsey’s friends, Rep. Carl Rogers and then-Sen. Casey Cagle, critics say.
Hulsey could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday. He no longer does interviews regarding LHR and has hired a public relations firm, Jackson Spalding, to handle media inquiries.
"I haven’t talked to Mr. Hulsey in a few weeks, and I haven’t heard about this (lawsuit), so I’m out of the loop," said Brian Brodrick, spokesman for Jackson Spalding.
Hulsey’s environmental attorney, Greg Blount, is out of town this week, and unavailable for comment. His Gainesville attorney, Ed Hartness, could not be reached Tuesday.
At Hulsey Environmental Services, Hulsey’s plumbing and septic business in Gainesville, a woman who answered the phone said, "We know of no lawsuit against us. We have no comment."
Donald Stack, an Atlanta environmental attorney who agreed to take the LHR neighbors’ case on a contingency basis, said the lawsuit was filed in White County Superior Court on Aug. 1 and defendants were given 45 days to respond.
"The point is to bring attention to what’s occurring," he said. "There’s clearly property devaluation (to the residents). The goal is to have Hulsey and the farm be a good neighbor."
Stack said a second lawsuit may be filed in federal court, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act. But he said he’s not trying to shut down LHR Farms.
"(Hulsey) has a right to run his business," he said.
Though the lawsuit requests a jury trial, Stack said it probably will never go to a jury.
"More than 90 percent of our cases are eventually settled out of court," he said.
In a way, the neighbors’ lawsuit might be considered payback. On Jan. 9, Hulsey filed a lawsuit for a restraining order against Rutter and Alexander, alleging that their protests, including yard signs and a Web site, were hurting his business’ reputation.
Two days later, Superior Court Judge Lynn Alderman presided over the case in the Lumpkin County courthouse, where the defendants argued that Hulsey was trying to interfere with their right to free speech. But before Alderman could issue a ruling, attorneys for both sides met and decided to negotiate a compromise.
With the latest lawsuit, Rutter said the plaintiffs aren’t really interested in money; they just want a better quality of life. Ultimately, she hopes the legal action will pressure Hulsey to stop operating LHR Farms voluntarily.
"I understand that waste is a fact of life, but if it’s disposed of properly, you shouldn’t have the odors and pollution," she said.
But she’s skeptical that LHR ever will be operated in an environmentally sensitive manner.
"(Hulsey) didn’t follow the consent order he’s already under," she said. "When it’s all said and done, I hope he leaves this county."
On Wednesday morning, Brodrick issued a prepared statement from Hulsey.
"It is unfortunate that a few isolated individuals have filed a lawsuit against LHR Farms," Hulsey wrote.
"The allegations in their complaint are simply not true."
Hulsey accused the plaintiffs of trying to destroy a "model environmentally sustainable agricultural operation."
"We are confident the truth is on our side," he wrote, "and we look forward to offering the facts to an objective body and putting this situation behind us."