Antrim Township homeowners worry about contaminated wells, food processing residual (FPR)
Several wells in southeastern Antrim Township have become contaminated since early August, and so far nothing has worked to restore the taste, smell or potability of the water.
The properties are all located near Barr Farms LLC, where food processing residual (FPR) is spread to fertilize the fields. About 70 people who live nearby attended a Sept. 29 meeting in the Shady Grove Community Center to talk about their fears FPR is the source of the contamination, air complaints about the smell and point out the need for updated regulations and enforcement.
The meeting was facilitated by Antrim Township and included three representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, state Rep. Paul Schemel and Michele Ivory from state Sen. Judy Ward's office.
Brian Barr, owner of Barr Farms, did not attend the meeting, but in a phone interview said he does not think his farm is the source of the contamination, but he is working with DEP as it investigates.
What is FPR?
"We all eat chicken," said Ed Tracey of Tracey's Orchard on Hollowell Church Road, who provided general information about FPR, as well as specific information about the area surrounding Barr Farms, which also includes Barr, McDowell and Gearhart roads.
FPR is what's leftover when agricultural commodities — including meat, fruit and vegetables — are processed for human or animal consumption.
According to DEP's Food Processing Residual Management Manual, "examples include: process wastewater from cleaning slaughter areas, rinsing carcasses, or conveying food materials; process wastewater treatment sludges; blood; bone; fruit and vegetable peels; seeds; shells; pits; cheese whey; off-specification food products; hides; hair; and feathers."
Spreading FPR on farm fields has expanded in the last 10 to 15 years due to stricter laws governing disposal at landfills and incinerating plants, Tracey said. He explained farmers benefit because they do not have to buy fertilizer and they are paid to have the FPR stored and spread on their land.
There used to be dairy cows on the Barr Farms, then beef cattle and now just crops, said Barr, who farms close to 400 acres. He said since there is no longer manure from cows on the farm, he turned to FPR for natural fertilizer. It's been spread on his fields two or three times a year for about two years.
Three people whose wells are contaminated spoke at the meeting and anecdotally up to 15 properties may be affected.
On Aug. 11, the water was cloudy at the home Kayla and Brad Kershner built on McDowell Road and moved into in May 2020 with their son Bentley, now 7.
On Aug. 12, the water had a "wretched smell" and was unfit for normal use.
When the problem persisted, the Kershners got in touch with Negley's Water and Well Drilling, which did water testing which showed high nitrites, E. coli and coliform bacteria and tried unsuccessful remedies, including a carbon filter and partial chlorination system.
The water would "make you gag as soon as you turned it on," said Kershner, who also contacted DEP.
Negley's still hasn't found a solution and the Kershners are using a temporary water supply system and running back and forth to her parents' house for baths, laundry and dishes, "while still trying to make life normal for a 7-year-old who doesn't understand."
Water issues started Aug. 22 at the home of Anthony and Stacie Grove on Hollowell Church Road.
"All went terribly bad" on Aug. 23 and the water was completely unusable, according to Anthony Grove. Their water tests results were similar to the Kershners', including high coliform and nitrites. The Groves also contacted Negley's, which again has not been able to find a solution.
DEP has visited and tested the water, and Rep. Schemel has been to the Groves' home and put his hands in it.
The water is "putrid smelling" and has an oily effect on the skin, according to Lori Clopper, who lives with her husband, Tom, on Hollowell Church Road. Their water was contaminated on Sept. 3.
They both grew up in agriculture and appreciate farmers, but she's called DEP several time to complain about FPR spreading and odors.
"I can't express to you enough how this water situation and smell has affected our home," Clopper said.
The Cloppers have learned "from the trials and errors of others" and they have a temporary cistern in their garage.
"It's not fixing the problem ... we don't know the long-term effects," Clopper said.
Antrim Township can only say how deep a new well must be and has no policing or legislating authority, but is doing what it can to help residents, John Alleman, chairman of the township supervisors, told the audience. He said Amber King-Reasner, stormwater technician and assistant code enforcement officer, is the point of contact and Alleman, chairman of the supervisors, asked residents to keep her informed.
Finding the source
Looking back over the past 15 years, this is the first case of potential FPR well contamination the southcentral region of DEP been involved with, according to John Repetz, community relations coordinator.
DEP is doing more extensive testing on the contaminated wells and is working with Barr, but it will not be a quick process.
"We're trying to be expeditious and careful," said Tony Rathfon of DEP's waste management bureau. He said it needs to be determined if the contamination is coming from Barr Farm.
Barr's been asked to curtail land application and not accept any more FPR for now. However, the farm's two concrete pits, formerly used for manure, need to be emptied of a total of 1.3 million gallons of FPR to be inspected.
After the corn is cut, Rathfon said he wants to walk the fields to see if they are suitable for the application of more FPR. The fields also need to be checked for sinkholes.
"We're trying to figure out where the problem is coming from," he said.
"It's a whole proscribed process, it's not willy-nilly," said Barr, who does not think his farm is the source of the contamination.
"I have no desire do anything illegal or hurt anyone's livelihood. I wouldn't want anyone to hurt mine," Barr said. "I don't want to pollute anyone's wells either ... so far we haven't found any tank leakage."
In the air
Spreading the FPR to empty the tanks worries the neighbors, who say they also have to contend with a horrible smell.
"The manure smell goes away, this invades your house," said Nate Bacon of Wingerton Road.
"What happens in a couple of weeks when they start spraying?" asked Bacon, who has long-haul COVID-19 and struggles to breath. "This is not manure folks, this is not farming like we grew up with."
Tracey said he never smelled the Barr manure pits, but "the persistent and continuous foul, overwhelming and intrusive stench from those pits has been noticed to be more than a nuisance a mile way."
He continued, "In my personal experience, while picking peaches this summer all day with 95-degree heat, just hoping to feel any breeze, only you have the breeze bring a stench so revolting it makes up want to throw up."
Tracey repeated several times during the meeting "FPR is not manure."
"I know at first it smelled pretty bad," Barr said, explaining he's been working hard over the last two years to curb the odor.
He's experimenting with how much of an additive to use to cut down on the smell and Jesse Jones of Jones Family Farms, which supplies and spreads the FPR, injects it several inches into the soil, Barr said.
However, Tracey said the discs on the back of the spreader aren't turning much soil and at times don't touch the ground.
There also is a piping system so when new FPR is added to the tanks it goes under FPR that is already there and has formed a crust, according to Barr.
Odors should minimized in accordance with best management practices outlined in the DEP FPR manual, according to Repetz.
Farms that use FPR are not inspected unless there are complaints or an inspection is requested by the owner. They don't have to register with DEP, so there is no way to know how many there are in the state.
Clopper said the regulatory structure is outdated and the manual was created in 1994 and last updated in 2001.
"At this point, we, as a group, would encourage DEP, PDA, the PA Legislature and anyone else who can bring common sense to this problem, and recommendations that could possibly alleviate some of the problems, since in all reality this practice is not going away," Tracey said.
He provided a list of eight recommendations "we would like to see enacted ASAP."
They include inspecting pits; covering pits to reduce odor; checking for sinkholes; yearly soil sampling; appointing monitors for on-site inspections; and severe fines and terminations of all certifications for violations.
"Neighbors should have the right to work, play or just enjoy being outdoors in our neighborhood without being exposed to bad air and bad water," Tracey said.
Shawn Hardy is a reporter with Gannett's Franklin County newspapers in south-central Pennsylvania — the Echo Pilot in Greencastle, The Record Herald in Waynesboro and the Public Opinion in Chambersburg. She has more than 35 years of journalism experience. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org