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ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Tap Root Dairy, LLC, one of North Carolina’s largest dairy farms located in Fletcher, N.C., and one of its owners pleaded guilty in federal court today to criminal violations of the Clean Water Act, announced Anne M. Tompkins, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.
U.S. Attorney Tompkins 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 Greg McLeod, Director of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (NC SBI).
A criminal bill of information filed in U.S. District Court on November 11, 2013, charged Tap Root Dairy, LLC (Tap Root) and William “Billy” Franklin Johnston, 60, 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. 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, Johnson 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, Tap Root failed to check and maintain the levels of cow waste in their on-site waste containment lagoons. 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.
In addition to pleading guilty to violating the Clean Water Act, Tap Root has also agreed: 1) to pay a fine of $80,000, which will be directed to entities that safeguard the French Broad River and other environmental concerns in the Southeast; 2) to abandon any appeal to a related $13,507.82 North Carolina State civil penalty; 3) to serve a probationary term of four years during which regulators and investigators can inspect their records and facilities without notice and without a warrant; and 4) to design and implement a compliance plan subject to approval by the EPA. At sentencing, Johnston faces a maximum prison term of one year and has agreed to pay an additional fine of $15,000. A sentencing date has not been set yet.
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 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 NC 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.