Feb 21, 2010 11:17 AM by Associated Press
At the end of a remote road lined by houses, children play in yards just a short distance from a stagnant, 16.5-acre lagoon filled with the waste sludge of a factory egg farm.
Flies hover over the pond as chicken urine and feces get pumped daily through white pipes connected from Olivera Egg Ranch's huge laying facilities, which can house more than 700,000 caged chickens.
Residents of this town 80 miles east of San Francisco say they've complained for years to local air and environmental regulators about the waste lagoon, saying the stench and eye-burning fumes give them headaches and nausea. They say nothing changed.
Now, after the Humane Society of the United States petitioned state air regulators for an investigation last month, Olivera Egg Ranch is facing six violations for expanding and operating its facilities without proper permits.
The Humane Society has also filed a lawsuit on behalf of 10 area residents, accusing Olivera of failing for years to report its air emissions to federal and state agencies.
On Thursday, a federal judge found that Olivera had "spoiled evidence" by dredging the manure lagoon prior to a site visit by society scientists.
"I don't necessarily think the lawsuit is fair or on any solid basis," said Edward Olivera, the farm's owner. Olivera would not comment on the violations, and referred further questions to his lawyer.
The lawyer, Jared Mueller, did not return calls seeking comment but in court papers denied the suit's allegations.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District referred odor complaints over the years to the county Board of Health.
Robert McClellon, a program coordinator for the board, said Olivera had been cited for violating manure management practices and unacceptable fly breeding. But he said his agency does not regulate ammonia or handle odor complaints.
Although some of the egg farm's neighbors moved out of the area since it was founded in late 1990s, others stayed on, farming and raising families.
"My husband and I farmed from sunrise to sunset, we're out there exposed to the smell and whatever else was out there coming from the Olivera farm," said Lita Galicinao, 79, whose late husband Sam built their home when they bought land after relocating from the Philippines in 1954.
"So it was really hard to work in the heat plus with the smell, a lot of times you feel nauseated, but that's our livelihood. We have to go out there and work."
Prompted by a Humane Society petition for an investigation, the air pollution control district issued a string of violations Feb. 5 to the Olivera farm for failing to file a number of permits required by state law. The permits, if filed, would have spurred regular inspections over the years and could have led to changes.
"Based on our investigation to this point we feel they were in violation of our rules and regulations," said Morgan Lambert, director of compliance for the air district.
Citing the ongoing investigation, he declined to comment further.
Upon completion of the investigation, the company could be subject to fines of up to $10,000 a day for each of the six violations.
The lawsuit, which seeks a cleanup and unspecified damages, alleges that "Olivera has systematically and continuously released unlawful levels of ammonia from the hen houses and manure lagoon into the local community without reporting them as required by (federal law) since at least 2004."
Such suits against waste lagoons can be difficult for complainants. Just before leaving office, the Bush administration issued a regulation exempting farms from reporting to federal regulators the releases of air pollution from animal waste. The regulation is being challenged by environmental groups in federal court.
Meanwhile, the people who live near the lagoon here say the recent regulatory action gives them hope.
Janice Magaoay, 55, who along with her husband is a plaintiff, said she tired of complaining about the lagoon.
"We're all people and we all deserve to be treated with respect and our children are here and we want to live here," she said. "We shouldn't have to leave because of (the stench) and it shouldn't be legal."