Farmer Divides Property & Avoids Regulation

Posted at 11:07 PM, May 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-06 00:07:30-04

The state is standing by its decision to let a husband and wife divide their farm in order to avoid certain environmental regulations.

Large poultry farms have been on the rise in Tennessee.

If a farm reaches a certain size it is required to get a permit under the Federal Clean Water Act.

But our investigation found a farm in Macon County that got around those regulations.

Carol Davis lives near the farm and said the smell from the chickens is ruining her quality of life.

"Nobody asked me if I wanted a chicken barn right down the road from me," Davis said.

The four barns near her are part of a network of breeder farms for a subsidiary of Tyson Chicken, named Cobb-Vantress.

"The houses were built before I realized they were there. When I realized it, I tried to make sure all regulations were followed," Davis said.

The farm's owner Ryan Russell applied for a permit to house up to 70 thousand chickens, but a farm that size required annual inspections and regular oversight.

So Russell divided his property between the barns -- putting two barns in his wife's name -- and two in his name.

Suddenly both were small enough to avoid the stricter regulations.

Sierra Club Attorney Brian Paddock was shocked when we showed him how the husband and wife operations were able to get around regulations.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Have you ever seen anything like that before?"

"No," Paddock replied.

"They're doing everything they can to avoid regulation and they probably know that the cop waves them through," Paddock said.

The cop in this case is the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation -- which is supposed to make sure tons of manure from the barns doesn't pollute surrounding streams.

Our investigation uncovered e-mails in which an executive with Cobb - Vantress laid out plans to split the farm to the state.

The executive writes "just wanting to make sure we are on the same page before Ryan spends the money to have his two farms split up. If he has two farms split up to where one is in his name and one is in his wife's name will that make it so that he doesn't have to apply for a CAFO permit."

After the state gave the split their approval, the Cobb - Vantress executive forwards the e-mail to farmer Ryan Russell... with an FYI and an explanation point.

TDEC would not do an interview about the situation.

But their spokesperson said the land owners may have taken advantage of the situation, but insisted the state never advised them to split their property.

"I think the state's selling us out," Davis said.

She couldn't believe the Russell's used their marriage to avoid regulation under the Clean Water Act.
"By law if you're married it's common property. So it's both of theirs," Davis said.

In fact EPA guidelines raise more questions.

They state farms that adjoin each should be counted as one if they have a common owner - for example "the same family or business entity owns both."

Even though the Russells are the same family TDEC claims the husband and wife are separate legal entities.

Brian Paddock questions the state's interpretation, "TDEC should go back and take a look at the situation."

Carol Davis believes the state bent the rules to give a major chicken producer a pass.

"It doesn't surprise me.  It means the big corporations are doing what they've always done in places," Davis said.

"It's like they're avoiding the law.  They're finding loopholes to know the law out."

Ryan Russell told us to call Cobb Vantress. The company said permits are between the farmer and the state. Their manager just asked TDEC a question. And they are following the law.

Here is more of the statement from Cobb-Vantress:

First of all, some background:  When Cobb-Vantress decided to expand into Tennessee, one of the first orders of business was to contact the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to help ensure that all of our operations, as well as the growers that we would contract with, would be in full compliance of the law.  These discussions began before the first houses were constructed and continued throughout the project. 

The email you have referred to is a communication to clarify a request about information regarding the farms' operation status.  Our complex manager asked TDEC a question and TDEC responded.  Our manager then provided the information to the farmer.

It's important to know that Cobb gains no benefits from a grower having or not having a CAFO permit. We require our growers to be in compliance with local, state and federal laws.  The permitting process is between the grower and the state of Tennessee.

You also asked if this kind of request happens often.  We're not aware of another time that any of the farms in this complex have split or combined, for any reason.

I hope this clears up any confusion.  Our actions from the beginning prove that we have been in full cooperation with the state of Tennessee.