Fighting Goliath: Bishopville church stands up to DHEC, local farm in fight over turkey barns

By Jessica Connor

BISHOPVILLE – A United Methodist church and its surrounding neighbors are fighting their own version of Goliath: eight new turkey grow-out barns in their rural community.

Grow-out barns are facilities where young birds are provided with optimum temperature, food, lighting and other controls so they can grow as big as possible before being sold to grocers. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control issued a permit in April authorizing construction of the barns. The property is managed by James T. Hoover, who said Prestage Farms will run the farm.

But Mount Zion UMC and many of the residents on or near Eddie Watkins Road in Bishopville are upset about the barns. They are concerned about air, water and ground contamination, coupled with decreased property values and excessively foul odors.

They also believe DHEC did not follow proper public notification procedures in the initial hearing process. To that end, they filed a request for a contested case hearing with the clerk of the administrative law court on June 10; the case is Dennis Hoover and Concerned Citizens vs. S.C. DHEC and James T. Hoover. While they have not yet hired an attorney – which could cost them $20,000 on the low end – they are doing all they can to educate themselves about procedures, environmental hazards and other public health concerns.

“Despite being faced with the legal challenge of defending the community, we as a community of believers are determined to exercise our rights to the fullest extent of the law,” said Mount Zion member Althea Belton, whose family has been members of the rural church for decades. “This may be a giant corporation with millions of dollars, and we are a humble rural community with limited income, but we have the Lord on our side. I think with prayer and perseverance, we will come out victorious. He has worked miracles before, and we’ve got to try.”

The community around the church is rural and sprawling, a mix of many types of people and homes: brick single-family houses with pretty gardens, a few trailers, older and younger people, black people and white, some well educated, others who have not finished high school. Though residents have relied heavily on manufacturing jobs, many have been lost in recent years because of the recession and the changing face of industry in this state.

It’s a community of few means and some illiteracy, Belton said. Many residents are senior citizens with a host of respiratory problems, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“DHEC can say all they want about the nitrogen and phosphorous dispersed from this waste that, with all the wind, is not a threat; they can come up with all the scientific data that they want to, but it’s a concern,” Belton said.

People fish from streams and ponds surrounding the proposed turkey grow-out barns, and the church also has a playground area and ball field where they host community-wide family activities, which stand to suffer from poor air quality and the stench and flies they expect will come from the turkey farms.

“The stench surrounds you, even when your windows are closed,” Belton said. “What good comes from this except from someone’s profit in their pocket? It’s ruining property values, messing with their neighborhood and hurting their health.”

Mount Zion’s pastor, the Rev. Angela Ford Nelson, said she supports her congregation’s efforts to stand up for what they believe in.

Dennis Hoover, brother of the man who is planning the farm, has joined Mount Zion members and other neighbors to fight what they acknowledge is an uphill battle. Having lived with two other turkey grow-out barns in the area, Hoover said he knows the toll the turkey farm will take on the neighborhood.

“No grill outs, no cooking out, no open door for the flies, just awful manure and bacteria. You breathe it in and get lung problems,” Hoover said. “I’m a country boy. I kill my own meat instead of buying it from the store. But that’s a horrible, chemical stench, and it’s all about money. They have no respect for human life.”

The farm will be 1,000 feet from his house, and he hopes to do all he can to fight it.

Citizens involved in the litigation believe DHEC did not do enough to notify the community about the public hearing for the farms.

They also think DHEC will not enforce regulations designed to protect communities from environmental problems created by the farms.

While the DHEC spokesperson that the Advocate spoke with could not discuss the litigation’s particulars, DHEC is expected to defend itself at the case hearing, saying it did file the proper procedures.

Adam Myrick, DHEC spokesperson, said DHEC has very strict procedures and regulations that they follow to a tee. Myrick said that while they understand anyone facing a turkey farm near their property will have concerns, he hopes people will understand the farms are fully regulated and frequently inspected to make sure operations are following the requirements.

“It’s not just a build-it-and-forget-about-it situation,” Myrick said.

Myrick said that if someone comes forward with a valid application for a turkey farm, and they meet all the requirements, then DHEC has to issue a permit.

“It’s the law,” he said.

But if a neighbor sees any red flag of a possible violation, they should call DHEC immediately, and an inspector will respond, usually within one working day, Myrick said.

As for odor, however, there is nothing they can do.

“There are best management practices to help deal with odors and make sure the facility is managing waste properly,” Myrick said. “But they’re animals. They are going to make waste, and when the wind blows a certain way, you’re going to get an unpleasant smell.”

He said odor is not in the regulation and is not within DHEC’s scope of responsibility.

“We know there are concerns, but they are not really concerns we can address,” Myrick said.

James Hoover, who owns the turkey farm in question, said Mount Zion members and other residents have nothing to fear.

“The facility meets and exceeds all of DHEC’s requirements, all the state regulations, so it poses no danger whatsoever to the environment or the community at all,” Hoover told the Advocate, reiterating that DHEC is “very stringent” and “extremely concerned about the environment.”

“If it were bad for the environment, believe me, they wouldn’t allow (my farm),” Hoover said.

He said Prestage Farms, which will operate the turkey grow-out barns, is a first-class company that will not pollute the water or the community. After all, Hoover said, he has a personal interest: he lives there, as do his mother and sister.

He said no one complains about the two other nearby turkey farms, so he believes the objections stem more from a private feud between him and his brother than anything else.

“I’m very confident in this operation,” Hoover said. “They have nothing to worry about, nothing to fear; this will not harm them in any way whatsoever. There will be no negative impact at all on any of them.”

Despite DHEC’s and Hoover’s assurances about environmental hazards, Mount Zion members remain concerned about possible air, water and ground contamination. They said the eight turkey grow-out barns have the capacity to house 6,000 turkeys generating approximately 1,920 tons of waste per year. >

“Research tells you the community is affected by chemicals and turkey farms,” Belton said, noting they will continue to do all they can to fight their personal Goliath. “You like to sit out on your porch in the cool of the evening and drink your coffee, and you don’t want the flies and stench; that’s their homes.

“We all have giants in our life, and any injustice to one is an injustice to all.”

A pre-hearing statement from plaintiffs is due to the S.C. Administrative Law Court by July 27, after the Advocate went to press on this edition. The Hon. John D. McLeod has been assigned to the case. Check future editions of the Advocate for more on the proceedings.

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