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Press Release

Dairy Company Owner Sentenced To Six Months Of Home Detention And Ordered To Pay $15,000 Fine For Discharging 11,000 Gallons of Cow Feces Into The French Broad River

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of North Carolina
Defendant is also Council Member for the Town of Mills River, N.C.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – William “Billy” Franklin Johnston, the owner of one of North Carolina’s largest dairy farms located in Fletcher, N.C., was sentenced today to four years of probation, six months of which he has to spend in home detention, for his role in the discharging of cow feces into the French Broad River, announced Jill Westmoreland Rose, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.  U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis L. Howell also ordered Johnston to pay a $15,000 fine.  The dairy company, Tap Root Dairy, LLC (Tap Root), was also fined $80,000 and was placed on a four-year probationary term.  The company is also required to abide by a comprehensive environmental compliance plan.

Acting U.S. Attorney Rose is joined in making today’s announcement by Special Agent in Charge Maureen O’Mara of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Investigation Division (EPA-CID), Atlanta Area Office, and B. W. Collier, Acting Director of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI).

A criminal bill of information filed in U.S. District Court on November 11, 2013, charged Tap Root and Johnston, 62, of Mills River, N.C., with one count of violation of the Clean Water Act, in connection with the discharging of cow feces into the French Broad River.  Johnston, the owner of Tap Root, is also a Board Member of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and currently serves as a Council member for the Town of Mills River.

According to filed documents and statements made in court, Tap Root maintains several hundred cows and manages hundreds of acres of crop fields in Fletcher.  In the annual course of its operations, Tap Root disposes millions of pounds of solid and liquid animal waste, which are considered pollutants under the Clean Water Act.  Court documents indicate that beginning in 2009, Johnston let his certification lapse as Operator in Charge (OIC) of Tap Root’s animal waste management system.  Despite receiving repeated warnings and notices, court records show that as of December 4, 2012, Tap Root still had not designated a valid OIC to oversee its waste management system. Furthermore, according to filed documents, from September 3, 2012 to December 4, 2012, for a total of 93 days, Johnston and the Tap Root employees had failed to check and maintain the levels of cow waste in their on-site waste containment lagoons.  According to court records, this resulted in the spillover and discharge of 11,000 gallons of cow feces and other waste into the French Broad River on December 4, 2012.  Testing by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources concluded that the fecal coliform level where the waste stream meets the river was 99,000 parts per million, whereas anything above 800 parts per million is indicative of a release.  Even downstream, testing found that the fecal coliform level was 2,200 parts per million.

“Agriculture is an important sector of Western North Carolina’s economy but it should not thrive at the expense of public health.  Environmental protection laws are in place to ensure appropriate land use and safeguard our communities from potentially harmful pollutants,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Rose.

“As one of North Carolina’s largest dairies, Tap Root Dairy Farm has an obligation to protect the surrounding community from pollution,” said Maureen O’Mara, Special Agent in Charge of EPA’s criminal enforcement program in North Carolina.  “Animal wastes are considered pollutants under the Clean Water Act because when discharged illegally, they can cause serious damage to the environment and put human health at risk.  Today’s sentencing shows that those who violate our nation’s environmental laws will be held accountable for their crimes.”

The Clean Water Act is a federal law enacted to prevent, reduce and eliminate pollution, and to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological quality, of the Nation’s waters for the protection and propagation of fish and aquatic life and wildlife, for recreational purposes, and for the use of such waters for public drinking water, agricultural, and industrial purposes. The French Broad River supplies drinking water to more than one million people and is frequently used for recreational water activities, such as swimming and kayaking. In 2012, North Carolina listed the French Broad River from Mud Creek to NC Highway 146 as “impaired” for fecal coliform bacteria.  Tap Root is located on this impaired section of the French Broad River.

The investigation of this case was conducted by special agents of the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division, and SBI’s Diversion and Environmental Crimes Unit. The prosecution is being handled by Assistant United States Attorney Steven R. Kaufman of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte.

Updated April 30, 2015