Former hog farm is big mess for state
Colorado is preparing legal action against company's owner
By Todd Hartman
Rocky Mountain News
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
What was once Colorado's largest hog farm is raising a new
stink from regulators demanding that the company clean up
heavily contaminated soil and water and pay overdue leases
on thousands of acres of state land. Although National Hog
Farms closed its doors six years ago, much of the site
remains an abandoned mess that regulators say will cost well
over $1 million to restore.
A veritable meat and manure factory, the operation sprawled
over 23,000 acres east of Greeley, fattening as many as
150,000 hogs wedged inside jammed production buildings and
saturating sandy grasslands with a river of swine waste
gunned from industrial sprinklers.
Now, state officials are preparing legal action against the
company's stockholder, alleging a litany of unaddressed
environmental violations and the firm's refusal to pay more
than $300,000 owed for leasing more than 5,000 state-owned
acres - public land home to some of the worst contamination
in the entire site.
And the latest move by its owner has only heightened
tensions. Earlier this month, the company declared it was
handing over all its stock to the State Land Board, an
ill-fated attempt, state officials say, to wash its hands of
any remaining responsibilities.
Regulators at the state health department have been dishing
out cleanup orders and fines to the company since the late
1990s, culminating in a lawsuit filed late last year
alleging the company has failed to comply with an array of
requirements, including planting specialized crops to draw
excess nitrogen from the nutrient-saturated soil.
In all, cleanup costs will likely exceed $1 million and are
probably far higher, according to Scott Klarich, an
environmental protection specialist at the Colorado
Department of Public Health and Environment.
Meanwhile, National Hog Farms has refused to pay the State
Land Board $313,000 in overdue lease payments. Earlier this
month, in lieu of payment, it informed the land board it was
turning over all its paperwork, company stock - even keys to
a gate on the property - to the state.
That prompted an irritated response from the state attorney
general's office, which informed the company's Houston-based
lawyer that if he thought the firm could relieve itself of
its obligations by relinquishing its corporate stock to the
state, "You are mistaken."
The director of the State Land Board, Britt Weygandt, warned
the company's owner, Mike Cervi, in a January letter that
the agency would take him to court on the issue. "It
certainly appears that we are on this path," Weygandt said
in a recent interview.
Owner is doing time
Adding to the intrigue is Cervi himself, a 69-year-old Weld
County rancher and businessman who bought the company's
stock in 2004 and recently became a convicted felon.
Cervi is serving a five-month federal prison sentence in
California unrelated to any issues at National Hog Farms.
His offense: tampering with monitoring equipment in Weld
County to hide leaks in underground storage of wastewater
left over from oil well drilling - a felony violation of the
Safe Drinking Water Act.
Cervi is slated for release March 10, according to the U.S.
Bureau of Prisons Web site. He was sentenced in U.S.
District Court in Colorado to serve an additional five
months of home detention after his release, and was required
to pay a $30,000 fine and provide 50 hours of community
service by speaking to ranching and rodeo groups about his
crime and time in prison.
The company's attorney, Edward Hartline, didn't return two
phone messages seeking comment on the state's lease and
environmental disputes with National Hog Farms.
Though Cervi owns the company's stock, the land and water
that once belonged to National Hog Farms have been sold off.
The first sale came in 2002, to an out-of-state land broker.
The acreage sold again in 2003, according to Bob Lembke,
owner of the neighboring 70 Ranch.
It was Lembke himself who purchased most of the site - some
14,000 acres. A smaller portion, about 4,500 acres, was
purchased by Colorado Rockies star Todd Helton, Lembke said.
The remaining 5,000 acres - much of the most contaminated
land - belongs to the State Land Board.
The loss of land and water assets raises questions with
state health officials about whether there's water available
to grow crops such as sunflowers or alfalfa that cleanup
regulators say are needed to draw excess nitrates out of the
The situation also raises the possibility that, should the
health department fail to hold Cervi responsible for
cleanup, the State Land Board, as the landowner, could be
stuck with the costly work itself.
State officials also appear to have concerns that water
associated with the land board acreage may be in jeopardy.
But state lawyers wouldn't discuss the matter, citing
litigation in state water court involving the next-door 70
Ranch whose owner, Lembke, wants to provide more water to
Front Range suburbs.
"I don't want to get into details, but the land board is
(involved) in that case to protect its water interests,"
said Cheryl Linden, an assistant attorney general at the
Natural Resources and Environment Section of the attorney
Lembke said he hasn't talked to the State Land Board about
water rights, but "to my knowledge, they have no water
rights they're claiming as belonging to the state" in the
water court case.
Anschutz fought farm
It all adds up to a tangled mess for state officials who may
face a long, litigious road if they ever hope to get
anything out of Cervi or the company, once viewed as a small
economic engine for the farming region in Kersey, east of
Even in its heyday in the 1990s, with about 185 employees,
the farm was at the center of a much-publicized fight with
neighboring property owner Phil Anschutz, a billionaire
known in Colorado for his railroads, for founding Qwest
Communications and as a major political donor.
Anschutz, who owned a neighboring cattle operation known as
Equus Farms, long complained about the stench coming from
the hog farm and said it ruined hunting trips in the area.
In 1998, he largely bankrolled the campaign for Amendment
14, which, backed by environmentalists, passed easily.
The amendment tightened regulations on large hog farms,
which had drawn national attention from environmental
activists and journalists in the 1990s because of the
massive quantities of manure and liquid waste the operations
The amendment forced hog farms to better manage their
ecological impacts, including those from spreading liquefied
hog manure across the land.
If too much waste is applied as fertilizer in the warmer
months, the waste that isn't taken up by crops will seep
into the soil and contaminate land and groundwater. In the
colder months, when the ground is frozen, the waste has
nowhere to go and creates odors.
Because of that, state health officials banned land
application in winter, requiring many hog farms in the state
to build lagoons to hold the waste. National was reluctant
to comply, and was once cited for illegally land-applying
waste 250 times in 1999 and 2000.
All along, the company's then- chief executive, Bill Haw,
argued that state requirements were unreasonable.
Haw went on to blame regulators for his decision to shut
down the operation in 2000, saying he couldn't comply with
government demands. State health officials rejected the
notion that the new rules put the company out of business.
Since then, the operation changed hands. But Cervi, the
current owner, never resurrected the hog farm. Officials
believe Cervi was interested in the State Land Board leases
owned by the company and eventually wanted to run cattle in
Nitrates endanger babies
But pollution remains. Regulators say groundwater in some
monitoring wells is showing levels of nitrates 10 to 12
times higher than the health standard of 10 parts per
million. Nitrates pose the greatest risk to infants, who can
ingest the water when mixed with formula.
The nitrates can keep oxygen from flowing in the baby's
blood. That low oxygen can lead babies to show blue-colored
skin, hence an illness called "blue baby" disease. Other
symptoms include diarrhea and vomiting. In severe cases,
babies can have breathing problems.
Soil is contaminated as well, with elevated levels of
phosphorous, nitrate and heavy metals, according to
regulators and state documents. And the bulk of the
contamination is centered on the State Land Board acreage.
Even so, no one is drinking groundwater from the area, and
state officials concede the isolated site doesn't pose any
imminent public health risk.
But state environmental laws still apply, and regulators say
the company broke them on multiple fronts, from failing to
monitor and characterize groundwater contamination levels to
failing to complete a financial assurance plan that would
have ensured enough money to conduct cleanup work.
The company prepared a partial cleanup bond of $250,000,
which regulators have claimed. But National Hog Farms didn't
obtain a bond necessary for all the cleanup work, Klarich
"We've done an initial version making real conservative
assumptions and we believe the appropriate bond is likely
greater than $1 million," Klarich said.
Famous names in the mix
Cervi: Bought the company's stock in 2004. The hog farm
went out of business in 2000.
Anschutz: Largely bankrolled campaign to tighten
regulations on hog farms.
Helton: Colorado Rockies star bought about 4,500 acres of
the former hog farm site.
Lembke: Neighboring rancher bought most of the hog farm
land - about 14,000 acres.