Earl Parnell's tenure in the hog business was cut short. Even at the age of 74, he had plans to update his farrow-to-finish operation much as he had done over the past 30 years. The growth of his operation near Parkton, NC, likely mirrors that of many others across the country. It reads like this:

* Entered the hog business in 1966 with 220 sows;

* Expanded to 450 sows in 1973;

* Expanded to 800 sows in the late '70s;

* Expanded to 1,200 sows in the early 1980s and built last of five lagoons.

* New 42-crate farrowing facility built in the early '90s, added a couple of finishing barns.

But in the mid-'90s Parnell's pork production story took an abrupt turn. Today, the entire 1,200 sow, farrow-to-finish operation is engulfed in an eerie silence. Earl Parnell's hog operation sits empty.

In some respects, Parnell became the victim of his own success. The evolution and growth of his hog operation spawned five lagoons connected by a hodge-podge of underground pipes to handle the multiplying gallons of manure that naturally accompanies such growth.

"Lagoons weren't the problem. Handling what's in the lagoons is what's the problem," Parnell states matter of factly.

Parnell's lawyer, Clark Wright of the Ward and Smith legal firm in New Bern, NC, agrees. "You can be doing everything that is state-of-the-art at the time, then 20 years later learn that there was some environmental impact associated with it."

In Parnell's case, the state-of-the-art technology included pumping from the lagoons onto 150-acre "spray fields" nearby. No one paid much attention to the periodic irrigation procedure - until a few years ago.

Water quality issues began surfacing in Robinson County in the early '90s where Parnell's operation is located. About that time, North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt ordered local health departments and state regulators to provide free well tests to anyone concerned about potential contamination.

And, in the early '90s, a small residential development began to emerge just north of the Parnell operation. Two-acre homesites were plotted off, trailer homes were pulled into place, each with its own well and septic system. In this area of North Carolina, you don't have to dig too deep to hit water - 20-30 ft. is usually sufficient.

When a number of Parnell's new neighbors had their wells tested, elevated nitrate levels (17 ppm) were found. Ten parts per million is the maximum allowed for human consumption.

"There can be a number of potential (nitrate) sources in this situation - commercial fertilizer, lawn fertilizer, a poorly designed well, leachate from a septic system, dead animals, even a small, unmarked cemetery can cause that kind of reading," reminds attorney Wright.

But, of course, animal waste leaching into the groundwater is another source. Neighbors were pointing decisively south - toward Earl Parnell's hog operation.

The state's Division of Water Quality (DWQ) was notified.

When water quality is involved, the burden to prove your innocence is pretty much yours, notes Wright.

"For better or worse, the almost universal trend with environmental statutes is one of strict liability for impact associated with past activity, regardless of any intent of whether you tried to do good or not," he adds.

A statute associated with groundwater is strict and straightforward, explains Wright. "Every state requires that the owner or operator of a facility that pollutes groundwater, must clean it up. And, not clean it up just a little, but clean it up to drinking water health standard levels."

Pork producers aren't the first to face such scrutiny, Wright says. Similar concerns were leveled at gas service station operators several years ago. Many mom-and-pop gas stations were put out of business because steel storage tanks, state-of-the-art at one time, began leaking. The cleanup task was immense - and expensive.

It happened, again, to dry cleaning businesses where highly toxic-cleaning chemicals had contaminated some properties. Again, private, oftentimes family, businesses were shut down.

Some hog units could face a similar fate.

"The key issue here is the nitrates," Wright continues. "The standard is 10 mg/liter. It's a legitimate, health-based standard. Nitrates interfere with the body's ability to metabolize oxygen, so drinking high-nitrate concentration water is potentially a health problem for very old and very young people."

In 1993, North Carolina began turning up the regulatory heat on hog operations. Regulators focused on some hog farm issues and began ratcheting-up the regulations. The state's permitting regulations were amended, taking aim at any facility that manages liquid waste and either discharges into a river or the so-called non-discharge systems that land applies the waste. Hog farms fall in the later category.

The 2H.200 rule, as it is known, required all new hog farms to abide by the latest NRCS standards, which included clay lining in lagoons, specified storage capacity, and crop acreage limitations based on agronomic uptake rates.

"In essence, it required that you manage the nutrients, contain them, and land-apply them in an appropriate manner," Wright explains. All existing hog farms were required to come into compliance with the rule by Dec. 31, 1997. Existing, non-lined lagoons were grandfathered in, so long as there was no evidence of leakage.

Lagoons weren't the problem at Parnell's. "That's what makes Earl's situations so difficult, both for him and the regulators," Wright continues. "Based on what is now a fairly large amount of subsurface well sampling and test data, it appears that the lagoons are not his primary problem. The primary problem is just chronic, long-term application on fields that are composed of such sandy soil that a typical uptake by the plants has not been enough to eliminate leaching into the groundwater aquifer."

Perhaps confounding the problem, the lagoons were designed smaller, required more frequent pumping and at a greater application rate than today's standards would allow.

"That's important because Mr. Parnell's case is a fairly high-profile case," Wright says. "Some might argue that this means the status quo of waste management doesn't work. I don't think that's true or fair." Although somewhat dated, Wright believes Parnell's operation could have been brought up to current standards.

But, simply closing the unit down did not solve the problem. The fact remained that a sizable nitrate plume remained under the farm - particularly under the spray fields - and Parnell was responsible to clean it up.

Before Wright was brought in, complaints had already been filed by the state. In essence, it said: "You violated the law, and, under the law you are required to clean it up," Wright explains.

Realizing that the state's primary focus was protecting the public health, Parnell took attorney Wright's advice, offering to cover the cost of connecting any neighbors with wells testing higher-than-acceptable nitrate levels to the adjoining county water system.

"The hope is, by addressing the state's number one priority, a very valid concern, that they will show some flexibility in the cleanup process," Wright notes. His goal was to give Parnell some additional time and flexibility by first addressing all of the "potential drinking water receptor sites" within the plume's path.

In addition, they filed a corrective action plan (CAP) with the state's groundwater program outlining their strategy.

The first step, of course, is to eliminate any further contamination - accomplished by closing down the farm. Next, the several million gallons remaining in the five lagoons will be managed by land-applying it on area fields at very low rates over the course of about two years.

Wright explains: "We've done some modeling that gives us an indicator as to how the plume will react. Then, Earl's going to have to invest a significant amount of money in monitoring wells, then sampling them on a regular basis to document the results over time."

A key part of their strategy is to allow nature to take its course in terms of breaking down the nitrates existing in the plume. Breakdown time is open to debate but it's sure to be a number of years. Nitrates do not break down very fast in the absence of oxygen and they also require an organic source. Therefore, soil type is a factor.

Given the components for breakdown, nitrates yield basically harmless chemicals like carbon dioxide, nitrogen gas and water - all primary constituents in the atmosphere. And, Wright reminds. "One of the difficulties is there is no (nitrate) cleanup technology that I know of."

Another unique feature of nitrate contamination is it is usually at extremely low levels. "The standard is 10 mg./liter for a reason, but even at 50 or 100 (mg./liter), that's still a very low concentration in terms of cleaning it up or trying to do anything with it," Wright explains. "The Parnell Farms' case is a good example of a literal, logistical impossibility because the well data suggests that the area is fairly large and the local aquifer has, who knows for what geological reason, tended to also move a little bit. So, over time, the high concentrations are further down and, in some instances, migrating further away from the farm. That makes it even harder to deal with in terms of a cleanup."

Fairness The temptation for a pork producer might be to ask: "Am I being unfairly singled out?"

It's possible. But, it's not an acceptable argument, says Wright. Just because someone else is creating a bigger problem but remains undetected does not provide you with a legal, or a moral, defense for not taking action to correct an identified problem.

Wright summarizes his pragmatic, legal opinion this way: "The data documents that a problem exists and it's migrating off-site. Because of that, he needs to do whatever he can to minimize any off-site damage and work in a positive way with regulators to do the best that can be done, within reason, to clean it up."

In Parnell's case, because the plume is large and dilute, the ability to undertake actual cleanup will be tough. Luckily, the availability of an alternate drinking water supply makes the situation more workable.

Rather than fight the state's suit, under Wright's guidance, Parnell entered into a preliminary consent order agreeing to take certain interim steps like preparing the corrective action plans (CAP), taking more samples and proposing a cleanup solution.

The state has signed-off on 90-95% of the proposal, says Wright, but the remaining 5-10% will be tougher and more expensive. To date, Parnell estimates he's spent $250,000 on legal advice, engineers and some special equipment. Roughly 125 permanent and temporary test wells have been drilled. The court order proposes 10 additional permanent test wells, 30-60 ft. deep.

Unanswered questions that remain for Parnell, include: How much well monitoring will he be required to do and for how long? How long will he be responsible for providing water to neighbors?

"These are very important long-term decisions," emphasizes Wright. "If we can reach agreement on those, we'll try to enter a final judgment in the case and that will end it, in a legal sense. But, it won't end it in a practical sense because he will still have to monitor the wells to see what's happening as the years go by. If they go as modeled, then the concentration levels will begin to drop and the plume will reach a status quo."

Closing Remarks "Earl Parnell's story is a tragic one," Wright agrees. "There's no way it can have a good ending. There's no way for Earl Parnell to feel good about the outcome. He's clearly a fella who has not tried to cut corners or dodge the issue - it just wasn't on the radar screen."

Where does that leave other pork producers with outdated, mismatched or just plain old production facilities? Wright says consider the plight of the gas station operators and dry cleaning merchants who have been targeted in the past. In those cases, it's played out like this: "If they (the regulators) have discovered significant problems, environmentally, you can count on consolidation, the demise of the individually owned family business, and the rise of the sort of integrated chain of nationally or regionally owned entities, because they are able to deal with the increased cost of regulation and spread them (over more operations) than the individuals can."

That's not to say individuals cannot survive, says Wright. But in the case of environmental regulation, there's strength in numbers. That strength can come through cooperative production alliances and industry organizations with a unified message.

"There's no way around it. When you get a new regulation, it's going to have this kind of effect on people like Earl (Parnell)," Wright says sadly.