1020septicaudSandy Alexander, who lives near the plant, describes what it's like to live there.
But there's one distinction that White County officials aren't particularly proud of. Their community is also home to LHR Farms, a waste-disposal operation that processes material pumped from septic tanks and grease traps all over North Georgia.
The 350-acre farm, owned by Gainesville resident John Hulsey, is located just south of the Telford Hulsey industrial park, not far from the Hall County line. If you drive past it on U.S. 129, it looks like an ordinary farm. There are poultry houses, grazing cattle, and an equestrian center called the Rockin' H Ranch.
But throughout the day, you may notice pumper trucks pulling into the property off Joe Turner Road. There, they dump the stuff no one likes to deal with: septage from residential tanks and commercial grease from restaurants.
After being treated on-site, some of the solids are removed and taken to landfills. The rest of the material is spread or sprayed on fields on the property.
LHR Farms has been in operation since 1996, and until recently, most people were unaware of the waste-processing facility. But almost anyone who regularly travels through White County on U.S. 129 has occasionally wondered about the source of an overpowering odor.
"It's a rotten, sick, decaying smell," said Sandy Alexander, who lives directly across the street on Joe Turner Road. "It will stimulate your gag reflex. We can't sit outside."
Alexander's 26-acre property has been owned by her husband's family for six decades. For the first 10 years of LHR's existence, the Alexanders didn't complain about the farm because they raise poultry themselves, and they understand that odors are an unavoidable part of agricultural life.
"But about two years ago, the situation became absolutely unbearable," Alexander said.
Neither state nor county has oversight
White County Commission chairman Chris Nonnemaker has been fielding complaints from his constituents about LHR for years. But he has to tell them there's not much he can do about it.
When LHR was established in 1996, it was initially under the jurisdiction of White County Environmental Health, because health departments typically handle issues regarding septic tanks. In 2002, a state law was passed giving the Georgia Environmental Protection Division regulatory authority over septic disposal sites.
But the law had a catch: In order for a facility to get a state permit, the county where it was located would have to give written approval. Before granting such approval for LHR, White County commissioners wanted some questions answered.
"Because we were getting so many complaints about odors, I felt there was over-application (of wastewater on the land)," said Nonnemaker. "In 2002, we met with Mr. Hulsey and he gave us a tour of the operation. We asked for a couple of things - some underground storage tanks and a 300-foot buffer (between adjacent property). He agreed to that. But the next thing we knew, he was asking for legislation."
That legislation was House Bill 54, sponsored in the House by state Rep. Carl Rogers (R-Gainesville). Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, then a state senator from Hall County, sponsored the Senate version.
The bill passed without fanfare in 2005.
Greg Blount, an Atlanta attorney representing Hulsey, said Thursday that HB 54 corrected a couple of flaws in the 2002 law.
"It's a problem if you have to get approval (from the county) and there are no objective criteria by which you can be judged," he said.
Blount explained that because White County has no zoning law, there is nothing that specifies where a particular land use is permissible.
"There was also an issue with retroactively judging facilities that are already in existence," he said.
So the 2005 law, House Bill 463, stripped away any local oversight of septic disposal facilities. It also exempted such sites from needing a permit if they were already in existence prior to July 2002.
Ernest Earn, implementation coordinator for the EPD's Watershed Protection Branch, said a change in the law last year would allow the EPD to require permits for all such facilities.
But the agency can't do that because the EPD is part of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the DNR's rules still say that the county has to give written approval before a permit can be issued.
At its regular meeting Tuesday, the DNR board is scheduled to discuss whether to change the rules so that they conform to the updated law. A vote is expected on Wednesday.
LHR may get a permit by summer
"Once the DNR adopts the rule change, it must be filed with the Secretary of State's office and would probably go into effect by March 1," said Earn. "Then we would notify Mr. Hulsey that he needs to file an application for a permit."
Earn noted that this permit would only be for the septic-waste part of LHR's operation, not for the grease processing. And according to the law, a permit isn't mandatory until 2012. But if LHR files an application soon, Earn said there would be a public notice and comment period, followed by a draft permit perhaps by June.
As for the grease business, LHR is already in the process of obtaining a permit for that. Currently it's operating under an October 2007 consent order from the EPD. In response to numerous complaints about odors, the EPD required Hulsey to pay a $2,500 settlement and to stop spraying the commercial waste effluent into the air.
"The liquid was going into a subsurface drain system, but he began accepting more (waste) than the system could hold," said Earn. "So he started spraying it on the land (without a permit). That is a violation of the rules."
It may sound as though the situation will soon be improving for people who live near LHR Farms. But some residents still have concerns they feel aren't being addressed.
Last year, Alexander began a personal quest to learn whether she and her neighbors are being harmed by pollution from the site. After being diagnosed with a kidney tumor in May, she drew on her background as a nurse to research the topic.
"I discovered that cadmium and other heavy metals (in sludge) can cause certain types of kidney cancer," she said. "Then I started checking around and found other neighbors bordering the farm, all of whom were on well water, who also had kidney diseases."
In November, Alexander printed up flyers and distributed them door to door. "That's when Peggy Rutter showed up in my driveway," she said. "She only lives about a mile from me, but we had never met before."
Activist organizes protest movement
Rutter, who lives off Ga. 75 South near Skitts Mountain, has formed a group called North Georgia Against Spreading Septage and created a Web site, www.ngass.com. She has put up protest signs all over her property and in many of her neighbors' yards.
Rutter's chief concern is that no government agency is checking for pollution in the areas surrounding LHR.
"The ground is so obviously oversaturated (with waste)," she said.
Rutter and Alexander both believe that the amount of waste being processed at LHR has increased dramatically over the past few years. Alexander began counting the number of trucks going into the farm and estimated that the farm must be processing about 175,000 gallons a day, based on the average load per truck.
Hulsey, who could not be reached for comment this week, has said in previous media reports that he processes only about 75,000 gallons a day. His consent order with the EPD sets a maximum of 100,000 gallons.
Alexander said the number of trucks entering LHR decreased by about 50 percent after the consent order was issued. But she is more concerned about the long-term effects of the farm's operations.
"I hired a microbiologist, an independent contractor, to test the water in my wells and creek," she said.
Alexander lives near Dean Creek, which runs into Mossy Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River.
When White County commissioners found out about the testing, they offered to help pay for it.
"The county will spend $6,000 to $7,000 to test those wells and streams," said Nonnemaker. "The citizens shouldn't have to foot the bill for that. But I intend to have Mr. Hulsey recoup our costs."
The biologist, Erberhard Essich, told commissioners he found extremely high levels of fecal coliform bacteria in Dean Creek, far beyond what would be expected from normal farm activities such as grazing cattle.
"We now believe there are significant impacts to the health of the people," said Nonnemaker. "I'm very concerned about groundwater contamination."
Who's watching the farm?
Earn said the EPD does not know whether there is any off-site contamination from LHR, because the state has never monitored the facility.
He said if LHR gets a land application permit, it will have to have groundwater monitoring wells and conduct soil and water testing.
"(Hulsey) will be responsible for collecting samples and having them analyzed by an approved lab and the results submitted to us," he said. "He'll also be required to report how much waste he is accepting."
Earn acknowledged that it's an honor system and the EPD assumes companies are giving accurate information.
But Alexander doesn't trust the EPD to keep an eye on the farm, so she's been trying to get other government entities involved. She said she's written letters to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gov. Perdue, and all of the area legislators.
"I've never been so distraught," she said. "I can't get anyone to listen to me."
On Jan. 9, she had another reason to be upset. Hulsey filed a lawsuit against Alexander and Rutter, alleging that they "have waged a campaign to shut down LHR Farms ... and defame Hulsey."
The suit further alleged that Rutter had "harassed and intimidated" haulers as they drive in and out of LHR, and that she later "stalked" them. It also accused Rutter of trespassing on LHR property, "with intent to further harass and intimidate."
Hulsey's legal team sought an immediate restraining order, including a requirement that Rutter shut down her Web site.
Court hearing generates controversy
Because Hulsey requested a court date as soon as possible, the case was heard Jan. 11 by Superior Court Judge Lynn Alderman in Dahlonega, which is part of the Enotah Judicial Circuit that includes White County.
Though a number of witnesses showed up to testify on Hulsey's behalf, only one - LHR Farms manager Devin White - was called to the stand. During a break, attorneys from both sides met and decided they would rather try to reach a settlement than go forward with the hearing.
Rutter said she is prohibited from discussing the details of the mutual agreement. But she was allowed to keep her Web site, with a few modifications.
She claims that Hulsey's attorneys offered her $25,000 to "water down" the Web site, stop leading protests, and stop posting anti-LHR signs in her yard.
"I said no," she said. "I felt it would be a disservice to my community. We're not going to back down."
The hearing seemed to have unintended consequences for one potential witness. Jesse and Anna Nix, owners of North Georgia Sewer and Drain, a septic pumping service in Cleveland, said one of Hulsey's attorneys asked if they would be willing to testify on LHR's behalf.
"They asked me to state some things that I felt weren't true and I didn't feel comfortable saying," said Jesse Nix. "They told me to say I've been harassed by these ladies, and I haven't. They also wanted me to say that they run a clean operation, but I can't say that because I don't know it for a fact, since they have no permit."
After declining to testify on Friday, Nix said he called LHR Monday to tell them he was bringing in a load of septic waste. He claims he was denied access to the facility.
"Hulsey said he no longer had any use for me, because I wouldn't back him up," Nix said.
Brian Brodrick, spokesman for Jackson Spaulding, a public-relations firm that Hulsey has hired to represent LHR, confirmed that Nix was turned away from the property Monday. But he said it was because North Georgia Sewer and Drain "has a history of late payments and are currently behind on their payments."
But whatever the reason, Nix is now having to haul his grease-trap waste to a facility in metro Atlanta, and his septic waste to Monroe.
"The place in Monroe has lower fees, but the fuel is costing us $80 per round trip," he said. "And each trip takes four hours of our time, so that's $72 in labor costs that we have to pass on to our customers."
So much waste, so little space
Which brings up the question: If facilities like Hulsey's didn't exist, where would we dispose of the waste from millions of septic tanks in Georgia? And what would restaurants do with their grease?
"The frequency of grease-trap pumping has dramatically increased because of new health department regulations, but there aren't more places to put it," said Nix. "As for septic, most municipal (wastewater treatment) plants won't accept it from outside their county, and if they do, the prices are a lot higher."
Kelly Randall, director of Gainesville Public Utilities, said his department does not accept waste from outside Hall, except for marinas on Lake Lanier.
"And nobody really brings it to us anymore, because we charge what it costs us to treat it," he said. "Septic waste is significantly more concentrated that wastewater, so it's much more costly to treat. Wastewater plants used to subsidize the septic waste, but now we don't put those costs on our sewer customers."
And restaurant grease? Forget about it.
"Most wastewater plants are not designed to handle grease-trap waste," said Randall. "It's really difficult to dispose of."
Even though sewer service is more widely available than it used to be, many new subdivisions are still being built in areas where septic tanks are the only option. Randall said with Georgia's growing population, "it's an issue that has to be addressed. There needs to be places where you can take the waste."
Nonnemaker, too, is aware that Hulsey is providing a vital service.
"We are not out to close this facility," he said. "We understand the need for it. If there's not an affordable way to dispose of this waste, the cost is going to go up exponentially."
Nonnemaker said he just wants to know whether LHR Farms is causing any environmental damage, and if so, how to correct the problem.
"All we're asking for is testing and monitoring, and that the county be given those results," he said. "We want to be sure that what is being applied there is legal."