One of the nation’s largest egg farms, which lost millions of hens in last year’s bird flu outbreak, is defending itself against legal action by the state over a wastewater spill that fouled 18 miles of stream in northwest Iowa and killed 163,000 fish.
The Environmental Protection Commission voted unanimously to refer Sunrise Farms to the attorney general for enforcement of violations of state laws and administrative regulations. The company owns 23 egg-laying barns near Harris designed to hold up to 8 million hens.
Violations are referred to the attorney general in more serious cases because the DNR is limited in its administrative regulations to assess a maximum $10,000 fine. The attorney general’s office can file legal action to force a company to correct problems and levy much higher fines.
Sunrise Farms is an affiliate of Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based Sonstegard Foods.
The company hopes to get the complaints resolved and use the process to improve upon the issues raised by the DNR, Eldon McAfee, the company’s attorney, said.
“The farm was hit with avian influenza in the spring of 2015. This discharge occurred in the fall and they were dealing with production issues which they had never experienced before. That’s an underlying issue,” he said.
Sunrise Farms lost 3.8 million hens after a bird flu outbreak last April.
DNR documents submitted to the commission indicate the egg farm is authorized to treat and hold wastewater from its egg breaking operation in lagoons. The water is eventually spread through an irrigation system onto about 500 acres of adjacent farm land.
Last September a local resident reported a fish kill in Stoney Creek downstream from the farm. DNR staff investigated and found dead fish along 18 miles of the creek. The dead fish were valued at about $25,800.
DNR staff questioned the on-site farm manager who initially denied knowing what happened. After a few days of investigation and continued pressing by DNR agents, he acknowledged telling the farm’s night shift staff to dump as many as 12 truckloads of wastewater, each holding as much as 1,500 gallons, DNR reports said.
The smelly wastewater, which had a high ammonia content, was a mix of egg wash water, egg shells, soap, acid rinse, and chicken manure. It had been held in a tank for about six months.
The dumping violates a section of Iowa law prohibiting discharge of a pollutant into a waterway. It also violates sections of DNR administrative regulations that prohibit farms from dumping wastewater contrary to their permits and prohibiting wastewater toxic to humans, animals or plant life from being released.
The state also will pursue allegations that Sunrise Farms failed to obtain permits before building two chicken barns at a site near Sibley. The company has four buildings at the location designed to house up to 520,000 chickens. It had permission to build two.
Iowa had 67 manure spills from large-scale animal operations in 2015, DNR records show, a 39 percent increase from the year before. The increasing number has brought criticism from environmental groups.
“It doesn’t take much common sense to realize that Iowa has too much manure,” said Barb Kalbach, a family farmer from Dexter and a member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, an activist group. “We reached our tipping point a long time ago; DNR shouldn’t be approving anymore factory farms.”
The DNR approved 474 permits for new or expanding livestock farms last year, bringing Iowa’s total number of large-scale animal farms to more than 9,000. They produce an estimated 22 billion gallons of liquid manure a year, most of which is spread untreated on cropland.