These rows of egg-laying hens are in a huge Ohio Fresh Eggs barn in Richwood, Ohio.
COLUMBUS - The state yesterday took a step toward shutting down Ohio Fresh Eggs' operations after claiming the firm hid the extent of involvement of an egg producer Iowa dubbed a habitual environmental offender.
The farm operation, which has 7 million birds at 12 sites in Wyandot, Hardin, and Licking counties, immediately indicated its intention to appeal the proposed revocation of its operating permits to a Department of Agriculture hearing officer.
"If it is determined these permits were based on false or misleading information, Ohio law makes it very clear they must be revoked," Agriculture Director Fred Dailey said. "This poultry farm deserves owners and operators that conduct themselves with integrity and honesty, and are committed to being good neighbors."
The sites were formerly owned by Buckeye Egg Farms, where repeated manure spills and fly outbreaks infuriated environmentalists and neighbors. They were newly permitted by new owner Ohio Fresh Eggs and newly permitted in 2003 and 2004.
An inspector checks eggs at a barn in Mount Victory, Ohio.
The state accuses the new owners of failing to reveal the extent of the management role of Austin "Jack" DeCoster, a Maine native whose egg operations in Iowa have a long history of environmental violations.
"In October, 2004, we were informed that Mr. DeCoster held an option to purchase," said Bill Schwaderer, spokesman for Agriculture's Livestock Environmental Permitting Program. "Further checks made in connection with OFE showed his current involvement in management decisions. We want to know when did it start and why he was not included in the permit?"
Reporting Mr. DeCoster as having a management role would have triggered a background check under Ohio's new factory-farm law, a direct reaction to the problems with Buckeye Egg.
According to the department, Ohio Fresh Eggs is 70 percent owned by Hillandale Farms of Pennsylvania, owned by Orland Bethel, and 30 percent by Ohio Ag Investors, owned by Donald Hershey.
Farm spokesman Harry Palmer said Mr. DeCoster did not buy the firm and is not a partner, but he has helped finance improvements at the facilities. He characterized Mr. DeCoster's current level of involvement as "more than it should be."
"There are different levels of involvement." Mr. Palmer said talks have been under way for some time to resolve the issue.
Yesterday's order states that Ohio Fresh Farms assured the state that the then-anonymous person with an option to buy the operation would have no more oversight or control of the operations than a bank.
Following a hearing, the examiner would make a recommendation to Mr. Dailey.
His final order, in turn, could be appealed to the Environmental Review Appeals Commission.
Despite the repermitting and change of ownership, Ohio Fresh Eggs has continued to be plagued by manure, water leaks, and fly problems. The company has received 20 notices of deficiency from the state, although that number does not rival the violations of its predecessor.
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