Iowa OK’d egg farm tied to ‘habitual violator’

? The owner of an egg farm at the center of a massive salmonella recall was able to expand his egg empire despite being branded a “habitual violator” of Iowa’s environmental laws — a label that was supposed to ban him from building any more farms.

Documents reviewed by The Associated Press suggest Austin “Jack” DeCoster, one of the nation’s largest egg producers, got around the ban that lasted more than four years by having associates seek approval for the projects, only to assume control of the enterprise later.

State regulators approved a huge egg farm in 2001 even though it had suspected ties to DeCoster. The farm is now operated by Wright County Egg, which he owns, and is involved in the recall.

“He’s been trouble ever since he came here from Maine,” said former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who said the 75-year-old DeCoster had unfairly hurt the reputation of Iowa farmers.

DeCoster expanded his business into Iowa in the 1980s from Maine, where he started egg farming as a teenager. He also had enterprises in Ohio and Maryland.

In 2000, DeCoster, who also ran some large hog farms, was facing several lawsuits that accused him of polluting Iowa rivers and streams with hog manure. To settle the complaints, he acknowledged being a habitual violator — the first and still only Iowa farmer to be branded with that official label.

The label banned him from establishing any more animal farms through October 2004. It also included stiffer punishment for any future violations, a $150,000 fine and a mandate that he improve his handling of manure.

But records show those penalties posed little obstacle to DeCoster’s ambitions. His associates won approval in 2001 for a huge egg farm that he started controlling after his penalty expired. Today, that site is one of the largest operated by Wright County Egg, which has recalled 380 million eggs linked to salmonella cases across the country.

Congress has subpoenaed DeCoster to testify about the salmonella outbreak next month. Lawmakers are asking him and the owner of a second Iowa farm to explain how eggs from their facilities were linked to more than 1,300 cases of salmonella poisoning.

‘It’s a business’

Just weeks after DeCoster accepted habitual violator status, his associates founded a company called Environ Egg Production LLC. Its registered agent was a Des Moines lawyer who had represented DeCoster in the environmental lawsuits.

Soon, the company was pushing for approval of a project that would house 1.8 million hens near Galt, a tiny town north of Des Moines.

Residents fiercely opposed the project, saying they worried about possible air and water pollution. And several told the state Department of Natural Resources they were convinced that DeCoster was behind the operation.

Bill Drury, 59, who farms near DeCoster’s egg operations, said he recalled telling the DNR that DeCoster was behind the project and urging regulators to block it on environmental grounds. He said the decision to approve the permits was “ridiculous, but that was the law. They had no way of stopping it.”

Drury said many residents do not speak out against DeCoster because they consider him good for the local economy. He employs hundreds of workers and buys corn from local farmers to feed his chickens.

“He has not been a very good corporate member of Iowa. But there again, it’s a business. People work there. They buy a lot of corn, and so people tend not to go after him,” said state Sen. Gene Fraise, who heads a legislative committee on agriculture.

DeCoster did not respond to interview requests left by the AP at his home and office.

State environmental officials were aware that Environ “appeared to have the same address, same phone number, same agent and attorneys as DeCoster Farms of Iowa,” according to records. What’s more, a consultant who studied the soil where the confinement facility would be built listed “DeCoster Farms of Iowa” as his client in a report sent to county supervisors.

When the report reached the DNR, the client was listed as an Environ official named John Glessner, who had long worked closely with DeCoster’s businesses.

Sara Smith, a DNR official who helped review permit applications, warned Environ that DeCoster could not be involved, and that application materials must be “complete and accurate.”

But Environ officials insisted they had no connection to DeCoster, and the DNR granted the permit under the name of Glessner’s wife.

The permit was issued based on the information provided by Environ Eggs and the assumption that DeCoster was “neither constructing nor financing the project,” wrote Wayne Farrand, then a supervisor in DNR’s wastewater section.