Pillen’s Water: High nitrate detected on hog farms owned by Nebraska’s governor
Covered swine barns dot the landscape near Platte Center, where tens of thousands of hogs are raised and fed.
Many of these barns are owned by a local boy who grew up a few miles west of the village, built his small family farm into a global pork empire and then became governor.
Gov. Jim Pillen’s hog operations bring jobs and prosperity to this area near his hometown. They also may bring risk to Platte Center’s drinking water.
The town had to dig a new municipal well three years ago, after another well recorded nitrate at nearly 12 parts per million. That’s higher than the level the federal government says is safe to drink.
Ingesting high levels of nitrate has been linked to a variety of health conditions: A syndrome that can kill babies, thyroid disease, birth defects and cancers, including cancer in children. Nationally, Nebraska has the highest pediatric cancer rate west of Pennsylvania.
Nebraska counties with elevated nitrate levels are often the places where children suffer higher rates of brain cancer, lymphoma and leukemia, a recent University of Nebraska Medical Center study shows.
Andrew Greisen, Platte Center’s water operator, says the area surrounding town has seen a handful of cancer cases this year.
"When I was young, there wasn't that (many) people with cancer. Now it's wild,” he said. “Prostate cancer, breast cancer and brain cancer, just everything. I just think it's got to be the food we're eating or the water we're drinking.”
That’s why Greisen is now working with Natural Resources District experts as they map nitrate levels inside Platte Center-area aquifers – studying where the nitrate may be flowing from.
There are many potential culprits, including the nitrogen fertilizer applied for decades to corn fields surrounding this small town.
Another potential culprit: The Platte Center West hog farm. The farm, 6 miles northwest of town, recorded a 61.5-parts-per-million nitrate level – six times above the legal drinking water limit – in one of its monitoring wells last year.
Another nearby hog farm, Janssen Platte Center Nursery, which tested 21.2 parts per million nitrate in April, has shown “strong elevated nitrates and chloride levels,” according to a groundwater review by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy last year.
Both of these hog farms are registered to an owner at 4438 Old Mill Court in Columbus, the headquarters of Pillen Family Farms.
Greisen suspects most of the nitrate comes from anhydrous ammonia fertilizer dumped on cornfields decades ago. He also said that there’s a “good possibility” that hog farms with high nitrate readings affect the area’s water quality.
“It throws a red flag, it really does,” he said.
Since 1993, Pillen and his family have owned or operated at least 108 livestock facilities – most of them hog barns – spread throughout the state, but clustered in eastern Nebraska, according to permitting records.
Only 27 of these facilities are required by the state to have monitoring wells installed on them.
Sixteen of those 27 have recorded nitrate levels higher than 50 parts per million at least once since monitoring began on site, according to a Flatwater Free Press review.
A few of them have violated the state’s livestock waste control rules. They have housed more hogs than permitted, the state alleged, failed to report wastewater discharge into a marsh and submitted groundwater test results and manure nutrient analyses late – all of which could conceivably increase the risk of nitrate contamination, research shows.
Pillen is far from the only big hog producer facing these issues. In many places, waste from concentrated livestock operations is a major contributor to ground and surface water nitrate pollution, the research noted.
These high readings on Pillen-affiliated livestock facilities result in little state action, the review shows. Like other hog farms and feedlots that have reported high nitrate in Nebraska, the elevated levels don’t automatically trigger any state intervention, as the Flatwater Free Press previously reported. The NDEE examines these results individually to determine potential causes and solutions, said Amanda Woita, a department spokesperson.
To be clear: No one is directly drinking from these monitoring wells on hog farms. But some of that nitrate will move along with groundwater, experts say, potentially posing a risk to residents living downstream and contributing to Nebraska’s nitrate problem.
Pillen did not respond to multiple interview requests from Flatwater Free Press and Investigate Midwest about his hog operations.
In a December 2022 interview with the Nebraska Examiner, Pillen portrayed nitrate pollution as a problem largely stemming from the past. He said much improvement has been made, and that remaining problems will take time to address. “And if there are a few silly things going on, it’s easy to be able to identify that and granularly fix that,” he said.
A spokesperson for the governor directed all questions to Pillen Family Farms.
Pillen Family Farms CEO Sarah Pillen, the governor’s daughter, sent a general statement when reporters requested an interview. She said the company “(has) always placed a strong commitment on being positive environmental stewards of the land.”
She noted the company employs a 17-member team who work to protect Nebraska’s groundwater and ensure safe nutrient management.
She and other Pillen Family Farms executives did not respond to multiple email questions about high nitrate detected on specific hog farms, potential causes of these high readings and the company’s remediation efforts.
Many Pillen hog barns have few to no known nitrate issues, data show. Nitrate readings at modern hog confinements should be low unless waste storage pit leaks or manure is overapplied in nearby fields, said Chris Jones, former University of Iowa water quality researcher and author of book “The Swine Republic.”
Other Pillen hog barns look much like the hundreds of other pig farms spread across Nebraska, which tend to show at least slightly elevated nitrate levels at some points. Ray Ward, founder of a leading Nebraska water testing lab, said nitrate readings near livestock waste lagoons are “quite variable,” from near-zero levels to very high numbers.
Still other Pillen operations, like a Holt County hog farm, have recorded nitrate levels higher than Jones says he’s ever seen.
The Holt County farm, called CRB Finish, had multiple nitrate readings higher than 200 parts per million between 2015 and 2017.
In 2016, it recorded a reading of 445 parts per million – nearly 45 times the EPA standard for safe drinking water.
“If you've got a monitoring well that's 400 parts per million and there's drinking water wells in the area, that should be a 911,” Jones said.
Another expert, Rebecca Muenich of the University of Arkansas, said it’s a “huge, huge, huge human health concern” if nitrate anywhere near this level makes it into the drinking wells of nearby residents.
“That’s water that you can sell as fertilizer for sure,” said Muenich, who specializes in analyzing water quality data near livestock facilities.
The nitrate levels in that Holt County hog farm monitoring well have dropped markedly since 2020, dipping to near zero in November 2022.
Many other monitoring wells on livestock facilities tied to Pillen Family Farms continue to show flashing nitrate warning signs.
Nine different hog farms that the state lists as being Pillen-affiliated reported nitrate higher than 70 parts per million this year, according to an FFP review of groundwater reports.
Two are near Platte Center, population 355. The monitoring well at Pillen’s Production Farms, a hog farm south of the village, had water tested at 70 parts per million nitrate in April. Another farm, Oconee Finisher, reported 76 parts per million this year, the highest level since it started monitoring.
Both are downstream of the town and have less impact on the town’s drinking water. But residents of rural Platte County – many of whom get their drinking water from private wells that aren’t required to be tested – are still at risk, experts say.
At least seven domestic wells are situated within three miles downstream of Pillen’s Production Farms, a Flatwater Free Press analysis of the state well registry found.
Platte Center is surrounded by nearly 50 livestock facilities within a five-mile radius, including feedlots and hog barns. Many don’t have monitoring wells installed on site. The three that do, including one not owned by Pillen Family Farms, all show significantly elevated nitrate levels.
The town recently drilled a new, deeper well that’s currently delivering clean water.
The project’s price tag: Roughly $500,000. The state footed nearly half the bill.
Greisen is worried about Platte Center’s future, because he knows what is happening nearby.
The village of Lindsay has spent $826,000 digging a new well and running pipes into the village. One of that 283-person village’s wells has regularly violated the 10-ppm drinking water standard since 2010.
Bellwood is also under the threat of high nitrate.
Greisen wonders, and worries: Is more polluted water coming Platte Center’s way?
A Nitrate Mystery
Sometimes called “liquid gold,” hog manure contains a high concentration of nitrogen matter, which converts to nitrate when exposed to oxygen. Nitrate is great fertilizer for crops. But it can also easily find its way into groundwater, which supplies 85% of Nebraskans with drinking water.
The federal Clean Water Act gives states the authority to monitor water at certain livestock operations. Many states mandate the monitoring of nitrate because of potential water contamination.
Experts say these monitoring wells may pick up high nitrate originating from sources unrelated to livestock. The high nitrate detected could reflect plumes of nitrate, generated years ago, now entering the water table. It may also come from commercial fertilizer – many of Nebraska’s hog farms are near cornfields.
But sometimes feeding operations are the direct source of nitrate, depending on how they store feed, manage wastewater and apply manure to surrounding land, according to the NDEE and outside experts.
That’s why the NDEE typically requires multiple-well monitoring programs on certain sites — at least one upstream that indicates background contaminant levels, and two downstream.
High nitrate readings in a downstream well can indicate that the feedlot or hog barn has released large amounts of nitrogen into the aquifer, said Dan Snow, director of the University of Nebraska Water Sciences Laboratory.
Snow said the high nitrate and spikes of ammonia at CRB Finish, the Pillen hog farm in Holt County, seem to signify multiple leaking events in the wastewater distribution system. It appeared a spill “allowed the ammonia and other contaminants to flow directly into the aquifer,” he told the Flatwater Free Press, after reviewing the groundwater monitoring data.
Pillen Family Farms executives didn’t respond to multiple Flatwater Free Press emails asking about the potential cause of the high nitrate.
The soil is also very sandy in Holt County, Snow said, so nitrate from animal waste can get quickly washed into the water table. “Maybe having animal feeding operations in that part of the state is not a good idea, just because it's much easier to contaminate the local groundwater,” he said.
Hog manure is often applied to nearby fields to avoid high transportation costs, thus exposing nearby bodies of water and groundwater to contamination risks, said Muenich, the University of Arkansas water expert.
“... It can be accidental application or deliberate; it doesn't matter,” Snow said. “If it's at the surface … and the plant doesn't use it, it can eventually end up at the water table.”
State regulators point out that there are restrictions for livestock facilities like the Pillen Family Farms hog barns. They must sit at least 100 feet from an existing domestic well and 1,000 feet from an existing municipal well.
Some animal feeding operations are also asked to monitor nearby drinking wells, said Carla Felix, an NDEE spokesperson, in an email.
No hog barn is known to have contaminated a rural resident’s drinking water, Felix said.
“NDEE is not aware of any documented incidences where a private well was impacted by a (Livestock Waste Control Facility),” she wrote.
And she noted that any investigation isn’t guaranteed to identify the source of high nitrate for a simple reason: Groundwater moves.
Jones, the Iowa water expert, suspects that this mystery about where high nitrate comes from isn’t one that regulators are clamoring to solve.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental nonprofit, gave Nebraska an overall rating of “low” for what it says is a lack of livestock operation data transparency.
To Jones, keeping the sources of high nitrate mysterious is the point.
“The uncertainty about individual operations … the industry uses that … to avoid responsibility and make the case that it can't be regulated,” he said.
Problems in Hastings
In 2006, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee reported that workers at a Hastings-area hog farm were pumping hog waste onto a nearby federal wetlands area. State regulators later alleged that the hog farm, co-owned by Pillen Family Farms, had “allowed or caused a discharge of livestock waste” onto the wetlands, then failed to report the spill.
In a separate incident, farm employees constructed a PVC pipe without a permit. They used the pipe to drain a storage pit into a freshwater channel, regulators alleged.
The operation near Hastings, named Inland Foods, eventually entered a court-ordered agreement with state regulators and paid a civil penalty.
Inland Foods is one of a dozen Pillen Family Farms livestock operations that have violated state regulations in the past three decades, a review of NDEE documents shows.
Current executives at Pillen Family Farms didn’t respond when asked about specific violations of state rules.
In a statement, Sarah Pillen touted the company’s general environmental protection measures, describing them as “far beyond regulatory requirements.” The company works closely with state regulators, she said. In the company’s history, she said, it has never had a permit revoked. (Read Sarah Pillen’s full statement here.)
The Hastings-area farm didn’t have groundwater monitoring when it paid a penalty for violating state rules.
In 2011, state regulators recommended the installation of monitoring wells. The nitrate readings came back high.
An inspection later that year suggested the hog farm violated state rules by housing more hogs than its permit allowed.
High nitrate on site has continued. A downstream monitoring well detected a level of 77.8 parts per million in May. A 2021 NDEE report concluded that “this facility is impacting groundwater quality with a depth to water of 85-100 feet.”
The high nitrate readings didn’t surprise Marty Stange, Hastings’ environmental supervisor. He said local construction projects might have altered groundwater flow, and high nitrate levels might not necessarily reflect the hog farm’s manure management.
The NDEE works with livestock operations it has deemed to have impacted groundwater, Felix said. Sometimes it orders these facilities to do things such as increase monitoring, plant trees or relocate lagoons, which can cost millions of dollars.
There’s no public record of NDEE further investigating or otherwise acting on its 2021 report. Woita, the NDEE spokesperson, declined to say whether the department has worked with Inland Foods, the hog farm co-owned by Pillen Family Farms near Hastings, on any remediation.
Despite record-keeping rules, state regulations aren’t stopping high nitrate from showing up in water near livestock operations, advocates say. The leaching of nutrients from manure into groundwater and surface water can kill fish, cause algae bloom and threaten drinking water, research shows.
State rules require hog barns to document where manure is applied to prevent overapplication.
But Anthony Schutz, a UNL law professor and board member of the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, said such paperwork doesn’t guarantee good stewardship. After all, it’s nearly impossible for NDEE inspectors to watch every acre.
“You keep a bunch of records. You do a bunch of monitoring. You follow all of the rules that are in the permit. But it turns out the rules in the permit don't actually require you to not pollute. And so you wind up with … where we are today,” said Schutz.
Stronger Guardrails Needed?
Last September, a handful of Nebraskans testified at a state hearing on proposed permitting changes for concentrated animal feeding operations. Some testifiers were grassroots organizers. Others farmed small plots of land next to a livestock operation.
Most wanted the state to hold large, industrial farms more accountable.
“The water in this state belongs to the people, not to any industrial ag interest,” said Nancy Meyer, a Cedar Bluffs resident, arguing Nebraska is neglecting to protect its groundwater.
“When does the alarm sound loud enough that we stop overloading our soils and waterways with nutrients?” said Ashlen Busick, a testifier from the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, in an interview with the Flatwater Free Press.
But many inside Nebraska’s ag industry are dubious.
Livestock nutrient management consultant Andy Scholting thinks current state regulations already provide ample guardrails.
“We're doing more in regards to nutrient management compared to other states in the Midwest,” he said, noting the state mandates more frequent soil tests before manure application.
Osceola farmer Kevin Peterson owns a 4,800-head hog farm and serves on the state Environmental Quality Council, a 17-person, governor-appointed board that adopts some NDEE regulations.
Peterson thinks the current regulations, and a heavy emphasis on educating farmers, are working as intended.
After all, overapplying manure is expensive, he said. And Nebraska farmers are increasingly heeding the nitrate problem and taking voluntary action to address it, Peterson said.
“It's a lot easier to envision a robber baron sitting in the office … twisting his evil mustache and thinking about how they could destroy the environment in order to make an extra penny,” said Peterson. “I've yet to run into any of those folks … I do not think Governor Pillen is one of those.”
As governor, Pillen could strengthen rules and “stop the bleeding,” said Graham Christensen, an Oakland-area farmer who focuses on regenerative agriculture and runs a consulting firm.
“?He has such an opportunity as this known polluter to help bring farmers into a situation where they're not (polluting), and his operations would benefit from that,” said Christensen.
Pillen could tap into federal funding to promote farming practices that can reduce nitrate leaching, such as planting cover crops, Christensen said. He could step up state regulations on manure application such as requiring buffer strips when manure is applied.
“He's ignoring the issue. He’s not wanting to meet with anybody on this thing. He's not publicly addressing our concerns,” Christensen said.
This April, the NDEE published a letter to Nebraskans concerned about the feedlots, hog barns and chicken farms that surround small towns like Platte Center.
The document summarized public comments and the agency’s response to 11 different points of concern over water quality and waste control, after some commenters said the agency didn’t adequately address concerns raised in the rule-making process.
In the April letter, there’s a spot in the document where the NDEE listed any changes it has made in the permit rules in response to these concerns.
In all 11 areas where potential change could occur, the state agency responded with a single word.
Sky Chadde, of Investigate Midwest, contributed to this story.
Investigate Midwest is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that covers the agriculture industry.
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