JEANERETTE — When Andy Aucoin bought two acres of property on Bayou Teche in western St. Mary Parish in 1996, he envisioned backyard crawfish boils, an outdoor kitchen and a swimming pool where he could entertain friends and relatives under the shade of live oak trees.
But 25 years later, there are no pool parties, no barbecues, no crawfish boils. Aucoin even gave away his patio furniture because the stench and flies from his neighbor’s pigs, as many as 50 at a time, sometimes make it unbearable to be outdoors.
“We can’t do anything at home,” Aucoin said.
He has collected bags of flies from under his carport. They land on his cars, doorknobs, in drinks.
“We can’t even boil crawfish. It stinks and I’m worried about catching a disease.”
Aucoin said he has had to wear a raincoat to bring his garbage to the curb so he isn’t sprinkled with untreated pig urine. His neighbor, Jared Landry, under a Louisiana Department of Agriculture Best Management Practices program, sprays pig waste on his own front lawn, a process often used by large commercial hog farms to dispose of animal waste on crop land.
Landry, in 2005, built a 40-foot by 30-foot pig barn a few yards from Bayou Teche partly in a wetlands area, without local, state or federal permits, discharging pig urine, feces and bedding material into the waterway, according to environmental reports. Three years later he built a second barn, a little farther away from the bayou, but on the property line he shares with Aucoin, again allowing waste to flow into the waterway. He now has three pig barns on property that slopes toward the bayou.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Aucoin collected signatures on a petition from people concerned about the health effects of Landry’s pig operation. He attended community meetings, describing the pig operation and possible impacts on drinking water.
Laddy Butler, who lives about six blocks away in Sorrel, said her neighborhood had a fly infestation last year that chased she and her neighbors indoors. She’s also worried about the health effects from the flies and possibly contaminated drinking water.
“It’s disgusting,” she said. “I see what Andrew is going through. This is outrageous and nobody should have to live like that.”
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Bayou Teche is a source of drinking water for communities downstream from Landry’s property. The city of Franklin and the community of Charenton both have drinking water intakes on Bayou Teche downstream from Landry’s pig barns, according to Wilma Subra, an environmental chemist in Jeanerette who is known for helping residents take on polluters.
The section of Bayou Teche where Aucoin and Landry live “is listed as impaired due to high fecal coliform pathogens,” a federal Environmental Protection Agency official wrote in a July 2018 email to a Corps official.
Coliform is a bacteria found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals, including people and pigs. Its presence may indicate the presence of other pathogens in water.
A DEQ spokesman said discharges from individual home sewage treatment systems is the probable source of the poor water quality in Bayou Teche.
But the presence of coliform, Subra said, isn’t the only concern. People who raise show pigs inject them with a host of chemicals that are shed through urine and feces. Water plants may not treat drinking water to eliminate those chemicals, such as growth promoters and antibiotics.
Aucoin said the underground tanks that capture urine and wastewater from the pig barns overflow during heavy rain, sending untreated pig waste into Bayou Teche.
He has recent photos and video allegedly showing Landry spraying pig urine on his front yard while it is raining, which is prohibited under the state Department of Agriculture Best Management Practices plan because the rain can wash the urine into the bayou.
Landry declined to be interviewed for this story, citing a pending lawsuit filed by Aucoin. A hearing on the nuisance lawsuit, delayed numerous times, is set to be heard in August by 16th Judicial District Court Judge Keith Comeaux.
DEQ punts to Department of Agriculture
“It was peaceful, quiet, pleasant,” Aucoin said of the early years on his property, which slopes down to Bayou Teche and is shaded by oak trees.
Aucoin and his wife, Peggy, enjoyed their property for eight or so years, building a brick home in which to raise their children, until Landry and his wife, Allison, bought the house next door and, in 2005, erected a pig barn on the far side of his land from Aucoin’s, just yards from the bayou.
The barn was to be used for pigs his daughters raised to compete in 4H and other agriculture shows, but Landry said in a deposition he houses pigs for other 4-H students, too. They also sometimes sell the pigs for hundreds, even thousands of dollars, using the money to send their daughters to college.
The first line of defense for Aucoin when he suspected Landry of violating health and environmental regulations should have been the St. Mary Parish government.
St. Mary Parish implemented zoning Jan. 1, 2003, before Landry moved next to Aucoin, Tammy Luke, St. Mary Parish director of zoning, said. Under the mixed residential use zone, she said, Landry wasn’t required to obtain a building permit before erecting the barns and was allowed to raise pigs.
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In 2014, the parish adopted a Unified Development Code, Luke said, reclassifying the properties of Landry and Aucoin as Existing Residential Neighborhood 1, one of the strictest zones. But it was too late to do anything about the pig barns, she said. They were grandfathered, allowed to continue to exist in a residential zone because they were there before the zoning was revised.
Aucoin in August of 2016 reported smell, flies and pig waste washing onto his property to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
DEQ inspectors found one of Landry’s pig barns, the first one built less than 20 yards from the bayou, was flooded because heavy rainfall had made the bayou rise. A second barn holding 22 pigs was being cleaned, the dirty water discharged directly into Bayou Teche, the inspection report shows.
They visited the property again in November 2016, finding 20-30 pigs in each barn with water contaminated with pig feces and urine being discharged directly into the bayou. They found an additional problem: A pile of pig pen bedding and other debris 20-30 feet wide and six feet tall on the edge of the bayou and falling into the waterway. A report said Landry was in violation of at least two state environmental laws and could face fines.
Instead of shutting down the operation or requiring a water discharge permit, LDEQ officials asked the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry to assist Landry with a Best Management Practices plan, which is standard procedure, Joey Breaux, LDAF assistant commissioner of soil and water, said.
The BMP “program allows for less regulatory oversight from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality of organic solid waste materials determined to pose no risk or minimal risk to human health and the environment if managed properly,” according to department documents.
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Breaux approved Landry’s BMP plan in February of 2017, allowing him to collect urine and water from the barns in tanks and spray it on his front lawn to prevent the waste from entering Bayou Teche.
The practice is controversial.
Industrial pig farms in North Carolina in recent years were fined millions for spraying pig waste in much greater quantities after neighbors sued over the nuisance, health complications and environmental effects of raw pig waste in the air, in their water, on their yards and on their homes.
Steve Wing, an epidemiologist who died before one of the hog farm trials, testified via videotape that people living near hog farms, which produce much greater quantities of urine and feces than Landry’s small operation, suffered asthma, high blood pressure, headaches, nausea and coughing more often than other people.
Possible human health effects from Landry’s BMP plan operations, Breaux said, do not fall under the LDAF’s purview.
Feces and bedding from the barns are put into a large metal container, uncovered and unlined, elsewhere on the property and occasionally hauled away, according to Landry’s BMP plan.
In April 2017, a DEQ inspector said the BMP plan resolved the problem of waste directly entering the bayou, but noted that the potential still existed for leaks and overflows at the barns.
Landry was not fined by the LDEQ for admittedly discharging pig urine and feces directly into Bayou Teche all those years. The department does not issue fines in all cases, Gregory Langley, press secretary, said.
“The Department’s primary goal is compliance,” Langley said in an email. Landry didn’t have a history of previous complaints, “worked expeditiously,” he said, to comply after the initial August 2016 investigation and worked with the LDAF to implement the Best Management Practices plan.
The LDAF is confident, Breaux said, that if Landry is complying with conditions of the BMP, no waste is entering Bayou Teche from Landry’s pig barns. But no one from LDAF has inspected the operation since March of 2017, he said, adding they would only inspect when investigating complaints or if the BMP is revised.
Aucoin said he hasn’t filed complaints with the LDAF because he doesn’t have confidence the department will do anything.
He did file more complaints with the DEQ, as did another citizen. The agency took days, in one instance 11 days, to visit Landry’s operation and by then they found no violations, records show.
After the fact state, federal permits
More than a year after Aucoin first reported the pig barns to the LDEQ in August of 2016, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got involved, providing two opportunities to shut Landry’s pig operation down by requiring after-the-fact permits.
In January of 2018, the DNR’s Office of Coastal Management advised Landry he had to immediately apply for an after-the-fact coastal use permit for the first pig barn built nearest the bayou. At the same time, the Corps and LDEQ began the process of issuing an after-the-fact permit for the barn and the sewer treatment system Landry installed.
Both the Corps and LDNR are tasked with preservation of wetlands, Patrick Courreges, LDNR communications director, said.
It appeared at first that obtaining an after-the-fact Corps permit for the barn wouldn’t be easy. William Nethery with the surveillance and enforcement section of the Corps, in a Jan. 10, 2018, email to Landry, his engineer and attorney, said “that it would be very difficult to permit the slab and pen there because there is so much obvious upland alternative” and Landry had built the second pen in the upland.
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Darrell Barbara, chief of the western evaluation section of the Corps, noted in July of 2018, “There is a lot of concern on permitting this existing after-the-fact pen.” Other agencies, locals and non-governmental organizations, he wrote, “have expressed great concern.”
“We expect to drive hard on removal of this pen on the waterway and push for the non-wetland alternative, if it can be deemed practical,” Barbara wrote. “Not only just for avoiding direct impacts to aquatic resources along the riparian zone but also to avoid potential and likely indirect impacts to water quality in the area. If DNR is at a point of mitigation and permit issuing then understood. However, we just want you all to be aware of our ongoing and expected substantial review of this.”
The Corps’ role in relation to the federal Clean Water Act only involves placement of fill in wetlands and waters, Ricky Boyett, chief, public affairs with the Corps in New Orleans, said. The LDEQ oversees air and water quality, he said.
The Corps required Landry to first obtain a state LDEQ Water Quality Certification before the federal agency would approve an after-the-fact permit. In September of 2018, LDEQ acknowledged Landry met the requirements for and was granted a Water Quality Certification.
Landry paid a $50 administrative penalty for unauthorized activities to LDNR’s Office of Coastal Management in January 2019. It appears to be the only monetary penalty Landry has paid.
The LDNR’s Courreges said the agency is not focused on punishing offenders.
“We want the acres back,” he said.
The LDNR issued Landry an after-the-fact permit in February 2019. In March 2019, Barbara signed off on the Corps after-the-fact permit, allowing Landry to keep the first barn and sewer system on the banks of Bayou Teche after he purchased 0.1 acre of mitigation credits from the Cypremort Teche Mitigation Bank to compensate for 0.04 acres of bottomland hardwood habitat lost when he built the first pig barn.
The Corps, Boyette wrote, does not assess fines, although it can raise the issue with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has oversight of the Clean Water Act. The EPA, he said, did not object to approval of the after-the-fact-permit and did not assess a fine.
As for the observations by Corps officials early in the process, Boyette said based on initial information and calls from neighbors, attorneys and nongovernmental organizations, the initial anticipation was an after-the-fact permit was unlikely.
During the permit application evaluation, Boyette said, the Corps coordinated with LDEQ, LDNR, EPA and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries along with the local utility water intake facility on Bayou Teche. None of the agencies objected to the after-the-fact permit.
The LDEQ said the pig barn was in compliance and operating under a BMP plan, and “all violations and illegal discharges associated with the project had been addressed,” he said.
Nethery investigated the reported violations early on, but does not make the decision to approve or deny an after the fact permit, Boyette said.
Politics at play?
Aucoin said he believes politics played a role in allowing Landry to build his pig barns without so much as a local building permit, then to obtain a BMP from the LDAF and after-the-fact permits from LDEQ, LDNR and the Corps.
Representatives of those agencies said they followed proper procedures in reviewing and approving the pig barns.
“No one has coerced me or forced me to say or do anything,” Luke, the St. Mary Parish planning and zoning director, said. “I don’t care who you are, the rules are the rules.”
A Jan. 10, 2018, email from a LDNR employee to a LDEQ employee lends some credence to Aucoin’s claim.
“Please note that Mr. Landry is ‘connected’ from what I am told,” Heather Evans with LDNR’s Office of Coastal Management wrote.
Courreges, the LDNR spokesman, said it was Evans’ way “of letting folks in DEQ know this person is going to be a name dropper. ‘You know who I am.’ Makes no difference.”
Aucoin said he will continue to look for ways to curtail his neighbor’s practices.
“My friends don’t come here anymore. I could not do anything for my child’s graduation,” Aucoin said. “I’m stuck. I can’t sell the place.”