What's In that Liquid on Your Land?

Ruth White of Mobile, Ala., sent me an e-mail, in search of contacts who might help her address an environmental problem. It's tricky because it involves a private landowner and what he chooses to do with his land and the environmental agency and how it must do business.

"We have a small farm property adjacent to much larger property owned by an individual who, as often as four times per day, allows tanker trucks to dump a foul-smelling liquid onto the land. When questioned, the owner has given several different responses to the contents:

  • Oil from restaurants on the Mississippi Coast,
  • Water from the casinos on the coast, and
  • Chicken excrement.

All, he claims, are used for fertilizer," she noted.

"None of these stories make sense, however, when one knows that he dumps continuously in the same place, never spraying or spreading, and that this site remains barren of growth. To the local newspaper, he gave the story that it is grease mixed with a little corn meal and that it produces excellent crops from his pecan trees each year. Because the site is at least a half mile from the nearest pecan tree, though, that greatly reduces the truthfulness of that statement."

White went on to explain that after local environmental officials were contacted, they notified the owner that they wanted to visit his site and then did so. Prior to the visit, she said, the owner plowed in additional dirt and lime into the soil. "As soon as they produced their report, he resumed activities as before," she wrote.

She is concerned about the stench, stormwater runoff affecting children, animals, and crops, as well as potential heavy metal contamination in her well water.

"We have followed the normal channels through ADEM, both local and state offices, have contacted EPA, the Attorney General's Office of Alabama, and have had an article published in the local newspaper. However, at this time, no one has taken a sample of the material, but instead all have taken the word of the landowner," she wrote.

Any suggestions?

In a different part of the state, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scheduled a June 2 public meeting in Moulton for a status update on an investigation of perflourochemical contamination from biosolids applied to agricultural fields near Decatur, Ala.


Bob Roulston, an environmental manager who worked as an air quality compliance investigator for the Texas Air Control Board, offered his thoughts:

"I don't know what the Alabama laws are, but in Texas, any such 'dumping' has to be conducted by state authorized permit or similar authorization. If it is being trucked in across state lines, then definitely some interstate commerce is involved."

Roulston suggested the following:

Record (photos, videos, just write down the license numbers, etc.) the unloading activities, paying particular attention to logos, license plates, or other identifiers on the trucks used for transporting this stuff.

Use that information to find out who is transporting the material, U.S. Department of Transportation permits or licenses may be required, giving you ability to trace down the source or check state permits.

Roulston also referenced the Alabama Department of Environmental Management's home page, which says the agency does not discriminate in the administration of its programs or activities. There is an address and phone number for people interested in making inquiries related to nondiscrimination requirements. As a final recourse, he suggests the writer follow the trucks, using walkie talkies/cell phones between trackers so that the truckers don't try to shake pursuit.

She further might check (a) on the agency's policy for responding to complaints and (b) if it has an ombudsman office within it or somewhere else in the state government, if she is not pleased with how the agency responded to her complaint. She should also be able to review a copy of the report files following her complaint, to see what was found. Sometimes, if there is an on-going investigation, there may be more than was reported to her.

"I am sadly surprised that the ADEM apparently (allegedly) contacted the person being complained on in advance. I spent 10 years as a field investigator. As a citizen, I have had complaints filed against me. I cannot recall any time when we contacted a source to let them know that we would be coming out, responding to a complaint; nor have I received advance word when a complaint was filed on me before the officer was at my door.

"I did, however, routinely contact a facility before I performed a regular compliance inspection—most agencies did and I believe still do. If a site that is subject to inspection is not regularly 'occupied' during normal business hours (as I suppose many agricultural operations would be—the farmer/rancher being out in one of many fields or elsewhere, I suspect that the lady from Mobile's source was visited as a 'routine' inspection, not because of the complaints."

Posted by L.K. Williams, EPonline on Jun 02, 2009

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