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Nursery owner Bill Strain examines rocks in a drainage ditch beside the Limestone County  Farmers Cooperative last week. Strain says the unusual color of the rocks is the result of years of herbicide runoff from the co-op.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Nursery owner Bill Strain examines rocks in a drainage ditch beside the Limestone County Farmers Cooperative last week. Strain says the unusual color of the rocks is the result of years of herbicide runoff from the co-op.

Sleuthing for pollution in Limestone
Athens nursery owner takes contamination case to court
Suit claims Limestone co-op not following environmental regulations

Second of two parts

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com 340-2445

ATHENS — An Athens business that received an environmental award is a defendant in a federal lawsuit over alleged contamination.

Bill Strain, owner of Strain and Sons Nursery, is suing the Limestone County Farmers Cooperative and its parent organization, the Alabama Farmers Cooperative.

John Curtis, manager of the Limestone Co-op, is a past recipient of the Alabama Farmers Co-op Environmental Stewardship Award.

"They haven't been acting like stewards of the environment," Strain said.

His lawsuit states the Limestone Co-op does not follow industry standards or legal requirements in cleaning its spray tanks and other equipment. Strain said the co-op cleans its equipment on site, and the water drains into a ditch running under U.S. 31 and into his pond and a tributary of Swan Creek.

The co-op and nursery are a half-mile apart.

The lawsuit also states the co-op has handled the mixing and loading and unloading of chemicals improperly by not using a self-contained area.

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System's guidelines for pesticide management state that contamination can result from regularly cleaning mixing tanks, spray equipment and pesticid containers on the same site, causing a concentration of pesticides in the soil.

Guidelines say workers should carry a tank of clean water to the field and do an initial rinse of the spray tank and equipment there. Workers should pressure-wash or triple-rinse the equipment.

The alternative is to wash the equipment on a concrete or plastic temporary pad, collect the rinse water and recycle it.

Testing by the state and a private lab indicates pesticides and herbicides are in the groundwater and storm water adjacent to the co-op, in a tributary that runs to Swan Creek and in Strain's irrigation pond off U.S. 31.

Strain said he has lost at least $2 million in plants due to contamination, which has caused a loss in business.

Strain's lawsuit claims the co-op is violating various federal and state acts, including the federal Clean Water Act and the Alabama Pesticides Act.

Groundwater pollution

Testing determined there were pesticides and herbicides in the groundwater because samples from three monitoring wells at RJW Manufacturing contained chemicals.

Among the chemicals was Atrazine, which was present at levels above the safe drinking water standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. RJW is adjacent to the co-op, and a drainage ditch runs between the businesses.

RJW does not own the property and referred questions to one of the landowners, Buddy Weatherford of BKW Associates. He did not return The Daily's calls.

Limestone Co-op Manager John Curtis declined to comment.

The co-op's law firm, Scott, Sullivan, Streetman & Fox P.C., faxed The Daily a statement: "The only comment we would offer ... is that our client looks forward to having its day in court where it can offer evidence and prove the merits of its defenses to these unfounded allegations."

Tommy Paulk, president of the Alabama Farmers Cooperative, headquartered in Decatur, did not return The Daily's calls or e-mails.

In December 2006, U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith issued a preliminary injunction ordering the co-op to stop discharging chemicals from its property into the waterway.

The order also states that the co-op must study the feasibility of other methods for mixing, handling, loading, unloading, washing and rinsing its chemicals.

On Aug. 9, Strain and a Daily reporter looked at the water running from co-op property into a drainage ditch. The water was neon green.

On Aug. 16, Strain's attorneys filed a motion asking that the court find the co-op in contempt of the preliminary injunction. The motion states the co-op continues to discharge herbicides and other chemicals into the Swan Creek tributary.

On Aug. 20, the judge ordered the co-op to show cause in writing by Aug. 31 as to why he should not grant the contempt motion.

Court order

Strain said the two purposes of his lawsuit are to get an order from the federal court to stop the co-op from polluting and to seek damages from a jury for what the contamination has allegedly done to his pond and business. Strain asked for a fine of $32,500 a day for each Clean Water Act violation.

Bruce Barze, one of Strain's attorneys, said Strain wanted to resolve the case without going to court.

"Unfortunately, the lawyers hired by the insurance company to represent the co-op have done nothing but try to blame Mr. Strain, the local cemetery, the highway department or RJW for his damages," Barze said. The case could go into mediation if the parties agree.

If it goes into mediation, Barze said, that will be "nothing more than a sit-down."

"A mediator would negotiate, and we would enter into a voluntary settlement," Barze said. "But it's not binding. Either party could walk away from negotiations at any time."

If it goes to a jury, that will occur in early 2008.a

What about the state?

Another issue that concerns Strain is what the state plans to do about the contamination. The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries conducted the testing that indicated the presence of herbicides and pesticides in the water.

Tony Cofer, division director of pesticide management for the department, said he is working with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management on the investigation.

"We took water samples and samples of the foliage Mr. Strain thought had been damaged," Cofer said.

"I had a joint meeting with ADEM's groundwater branch and offered them our files so they could do further investigation."

Cofer said ADEM has more stringent regulations than his department, so if any penalties were assessed, they would come from ADEM.

ADEM spokesman Jerome Hand said Friday that the agency sent a groundwater official to look at the site earlier this month.

"We have data from the co-op, and our industrial branch is investigating, but no conclusions have been reached," Hand said.

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