ECRU – John Adam Nowlin wants the world to know what killed his cows.
Nowlin, a farmer who has spent the last four years trying to connect the dots between his dead livestock and a neighboring farm supplies store, is tired. The 39-year-old Ecru native believes the store allowed chemicals from its fertilizer to escape into a stream of water that his animals drank from. He is suing the business over the deaths of five cows and two buffalo.
Having shopped at the store for years, Nowlin said he made the connection almost immediately, recalling a strong whiff of ammonia that hung over his family’s pasture the day of the incident in 2018.
While the business – Jimmy Sanders, Inc., now owned by J.R. Simplot – faced recent regulatory pressure from the state over water pollution, it denies liability for the deaths of Nowlin’s animals.
The farmer admits that his fixation on the case has consumed other facets of his life.
“Fighting is exhausting,” Nowlin said. “But it’ll be worth it. I believe that there’s always consequences for doing what I’m doing. I’m sure it took a piece of me when it happened, when I became passionate about it.
“There is a trade-off, that’s just the way it is. And I can understand it pushing people away.”
While seeking recourse, Nowlin along the way found something bigger than his own case: a gap in clean water enforcement.
In 2014, about four years before Nowlin found the animals dying on his farm, Pinnacle Agriculture – Jimmy Sanders’ former parent company – sent a letter to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, requesting the state to terminate its permit status. At the time, most of the Jimmy Sanders facilities in Mississippi, including the one in Ecru, had a stormwater discharge permit.
Established under the federal Clean Water Act, such permits allow a facility to discharge limited pollutants into public bodies of water. For the Ecru facility, that body of water was the Lappatubby Creek, a stream on the other side of Nowlin’s farm.
But a permit also means the business has to regularly test what chemicals it releases – often by paying a private lab – and report those numbers to the regulatory agency, which, in this case, is MDEQ.
“No one wants to be subject to environmental regulations if they don’t have to be,” said MDEQ director Chris Wells.
Over the years, the Clean Water Act was amended to include certain industries with “stormwater discharge,” such as when rainfall collects and carries away chemicals left outside a facility.
Jimmy Sanders fell into that criteria until 2014, when Pinnacle wrote in its letter to MDEQ that the stores were misclassified as farm product “storage.” In reality, the letter stated, the stores should be considered farm product “distribution.” The Clean Water Act doesn’t require the latter of the two categories to have a permit.
Siding with the federal statute, MDEQ complied with Pinnacle’s request and agreed to terminate the permit coverage. As far as the state was concerned, the company would no longer be a source of pollution to public waters.
But not only did Jimmy Sanders already have a history of pollution before it received those permits, MDEQ records show, the company would go on to receive two violations for being a “possible source of pollution of state waters” after the state terminated the permits.
Wells of MDEQ told Mississippi Today that neither the state agency nor the EPA has the resources to regulate every business. If a business doesn’t have a permit, it wouldn’t be on the agency’s radar, he explained.
“If somebody is engaging in regulated activity without notifying us, there would be no reason for us to necessarily know that was going on, unless (an MDEQ) employee notices it or somebody lets us know about it,” he said.
With Jimmy Sanders, both violations were a result of citizen complaints, including one from Nowlin about his dead cattle.
One morning in January 2018, Nowlin was carrying a bag of feeding mix out to his family’s 300-acre farm.
The Nowlins have a large footprint in Ecru, a town of about 1,000 people. Ken, John Adam’s father, owns about a dozen different businesses, from the farm to a Shell gas station to an insurance company. John Adam helps out however he can, including feeding the livestock.
But after bringing the food out to the field where the cattle and buffalo had gathered – near a ditch that, he recalled, the animals were drinking out of – Nowlin panicked.
“When I get out there, I see them all convulsing, half of them at least,” he said. “Convulsing on the ground, dying in front of me. We had a bull that was sick. It was violent, acting angry.”
A video he took shows the animals lying on their sides, legs twitching in the air. The footage shows blood near the skin around their stomachs, which Nowlin believes was from intestinal bloating.
Scrambling for an explanation, he called a local veterinarian to take a look. Nowlin weighed whether to just shoot the cattle, but he thought that doing so would make it harder to discover what sickened them in the first place. Four cows and one buffalo died later that day, and another cow and buffalo died two days later.
The local vet connected Nowlin with a Mississippi State University doctor who could conduct a necropsy – an autopsy for animals. Nowlin knew the sooner he could get the bodies there, the better. But he needed a way to transport the carcasses, which weighed a few hundred pounds each.
So Nowlin and a couple of the other farm workers loaded two of the bodies onto a backhoe – a large, claw-shaped shovel used for excavation, like the ones attached to a Caterpillar – and dropped the carcasses onto a flatbed trailer.
They covered the trailer with a tarp, hooked it to the back of a red Dodge pickup truck, and drove the hour and a half to the MSU campus Starkville. As extra evidence, Nowlin scooped a water sample into a plastic water bottle and, for good measure, a dead frog he saw laying in the ditch.
At 9 p.m., they arrived at MSU’s veterinary school and left the bodies with Dr. Tim Morgan.
After a couple of months, Morgan recorded that there were high levels of ammonia in the rumens, one of the sections of a cow’s stomach. The findings, he wrote, were consistent with high levels of exposure to urea – a common ingredient in fertilizer – in a drinking source. Morgan’s official diagnosis was “urea toxicosis.”
Having been a customer at Jimmy Sanders and knowing what other businesses were nearby, it didn’t take long for Nowlin to lay the blame for the incident on the farm shop.
“I knew they were responsible within a day for poisoning my cattle,” he said, explaining that there was nowhere else nearby he could think of that worked with chemicals.
In April 2018, Nowlin met with his lawyers and wrote a letter to Jimmy Sanders requesting $27,000 in payment for the damages incurred, including: $10,000 for two dead pregnant buffaloes, $10,000 for five dead pregnant cows, and costs for transportation and veterinary bills.
A lawyer from Baker Donelson representing Jimmy Sanders wrote back, saying they investigated the death of the cattle and “it is not mathematically possible that (the cattle) died from drinking storm water running off of the Sanders property.”
The letter explained that any urea at the facility in January – when the deaths occurred – would have been leftover and dried up from older supply, and that even if it did reach the stream where the cattle drank from, it would have been “far below any level sufficient to cause urea toxicosis.”
The lawyer also said the urea could have come from hay the cows ate. But the water sample Nowlin collected, which Morgan sent to another lab, revealed urea and ammonia at the location Nowlin says the cattle drank from. The amount of urea in the water, Morgan later told MDEQ investigators, was more than four times the concentration needed to poison cattle.
At the very least, chemicals from Jimmy Sanders clearly reached the stream where Nowlin’s animals were drinking from, a Mississippi State professor determined after visiting the farm.
Padmanava Dash, a geoscience professor at MSU, specializes in water quality and has spent years analyzing dangerous toxins, such as those in algae blooms.
Dash heard from a colleague about Nowlin’s situation, specifically that there were high levels of ammonia nitrogen found in the cows’ stomachs. The presence of nitrogen, a food source for algae, caught Dash’s attention.
He connected with Nowlin and agreed to visit the farm. Earlier, in June, Nowlin noticed a green layer of slime that blanketed a pond in the back of his property. When Dash visited a month later, he informed Nowlin that the slimy substance was an algae bloom.
Specifically, they were looking at cyanobacteria, a substance familiar to coastal Mississippi. In 2019, the state had to close its beaches as a health precaution after spotting the algae near the shore. Research shows that agriculture runoff, specifically from fertilizer, is a direct cause of cyanobacteria.
Dash brought samples from the pond back to his lab in Starkville, and found surprising results: the level of microcystins – a toxin produced by cyanobacteria – was higher than five parts per billion, the limit of what his equipment could measure. In drinking water, he explained, any amount over one part per billion can kill a human.
The ditch where Nowlin found his animals dying, and where he says they were drinking water from, connects the algae-covered pond and where he alleges runoff from Jimmy Sanders reached his property.
Mississippi Today asked the professor about the source of the pond’s toxins. Dash, who reviewed satellite images of the area around the farm, said “we know what the source is.”
“The connection is there for sure,” he said. “The (Jimmy Sanders) parking lot directly drains to the ditch, and the ditch runs to the pond. So it’s a direct connection, there is no doubt about it.
“From what I have seen from the digital elevation models and satellite images, there is no point source in the area other than this for the high concentration of the nutrients.”
In August 2018, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality received a complaint from Nowlin about his dead cattle. Following an inspection, MDEQ gave Jimmy Sanders a violation after finding fertilizer residue outside and exposed on the business’ lot, a potential source for water pollution.
Nowlin filed a lawsuit against Jimmy Sanders a couple months later. He soon discovered that the state terminated the store’s discharge permit in 2014, and that regulators wouldn’t have known about the exposed fertilizer if it wasn’t for his complaint. He wondered whether, if the store still had its permit, his cattle would still be alive.
Nowlin realized that most of the Jimmy Sanders stores in Mississippi also didn’t have permits, and thought maybe he wasn’t alone in his experience. After scouring satellite images on Google Maps, he found and contacted a family living next door to one of the stores in Slate Springs, a north Mississippi town of about 100 people. As it turned out, they had been complaining about Jimmy Sanders for nearly two decades.
In 1999, after the family alerted MDEQ, a state inspector found that Jimmy Sanders was allowing chemical fertilizer to leave its property when it stormed, and that it didn’t have a discharge permit. The report mentions no punishment, only that MDEQ requested that the store get a permit.
The family filed two more complaints about fertilizer runoff. After its last complaint in 2019, the family showed an MDEQ inspector patches of dead grass and the skeletons of two armadillos, all of which they said were killed by runoff. Afterwards, the state fined Jimmy Sanders $17,500, again citing the store as a possible source of water pollution.
MDEQ records show another incident from 2004 in Ecru, where Jimmy Sanders spilled 13,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer, all of which “escaped” after heavy rain, the report said. MDEQ agreed not to pursue enforcement as long as Jimmy Sanders added a new containment unit.
In each of the above incidents, Jimmy Sanders didn’t have a permit, and MDEQ only discovered the infractions after citizen complaints. Most of the company’s Mississippi stores first received permits in 2010, state records show. During inspections that year, MDEQ found deficiencies at almost every one of the facilities due to waste or chemicals being left exposed to stormwater.
Mississippi Today asked Wells, the MDEQ director, about the state terminating Jimmy Sanders’ permits, and whether the company receiving water pollution violations afterwards represented a flaw in the regulatory process. He said he wouldn’t go that far, instead calling it a small gap in an otherwise effective system.
“This is a narrow, specific scenario that may be a perfect storm situation, that I want to be careful that we don’t extrapolate that in a way that undermines the credibility of the entire program,” he said.
Stephanie Showalter-Otts, an environmental law specialist at the University of Mississippi, disagreed that this was a rare situation, saying “it’s not uncommon to find these gaps in the framework” of the Clean Water Act.
She was surprised, though, after being told that Jimmy Sanders no longer needed a permit after changing its industry from farm product “storage” to farm product “distribution.”
“That is a tiny distinction that I wouldn’t have thought would have really changed if they needed a permit or not,” she said, adding that “it can seem arbitrary sometimes” which businesses are required to have a permit.
When asked about a business switching its industry classification, Wells said MDEQ does require the company to submit documents as proof. But, to some extent, the agency has to rely on the company’s honesty, he said.
“If part of what you’re asking me is, did we just take these people at their word that they were this (industry) code instead of the other, to some degree the answer is yes,” Wells said.
Wells declined to comment on the Jimmy Sanders situation specifically, only saying that the agency employees who made the decision to terminate the company’s permits in 2014 no longer worked there. Wells did say that MDEQ can re-evaluate if a company needs a discharge permit.
The scope of what industries are required to have permits is part of the Clean Water Act’s limitations, Showalter-Otts said.
“I think that this just identifies … the flaw in the system, because the federal framework exempts a very large category of pollutants from the permitting system, then that creates loopholes,” she said.
A spokesperson for J.R. Simplot, the company that now owns Jimmy Sanders, said it couldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit with Nowlin, but gave Mississippi Today the following response:
“Since Simplot’s purchase of this facility in 2020, we have taken steps to ensure all of the processes meet or exceed the state and federal guidelines for safe water and other health and safety standards at this and all of our locations. This includes implementing a stormwater pollution prevention plan, and enhanced storage and containment of products at the location.”
Simplot added that it now conducts monthly inspections of the stormwater runoff from the Ecru facility.
Nowlin describes himself as obsessed. Learning about the other complaints against Jimmy Sanders only raised the stakes. He sees himself as a catalyst for a battle bigger than just avenging his cattle.
“Whenever you do something, you’re going to sacrifice some other part of your life,” Nowlin said. “But I feel like people are dependent on me.”
His sacrifice, Nowlin described, was his mental health and close relationships. He says that people around him can’t understand why this is so important to him.
“I’ve just been swinging my fist, and I’ve not looked up to breathe,” Nowlin said.
In 2019, Nowlin and his wife, who knew each other since childhood, got divorced. He believes his time spent on the Sanders case had something to do with it.
“My stress level is really kind of high at times,” he said. “You spend time with something and you want it to work out and you don’t want it to affect your relationships but it does.”
Despite his lawsuit treading in uncertainty, and despite at times feeling isolated in his venture, he takes comfort in knowing his case is part of what’s recently become a national environmental priority.
In April, the Environmental Protection Agency announced in a memorandum that it was taking new action to reduce pollution from agricultural runoff. Clean water advocates have pointed to the issue for years, citing effects like the growing “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
The agency wrote that “nutrients are the most widespread stressor impacting rivers and streams,” adding that “about two-thirds of the nation’s coastal areas and more than one-third of the nation’s estuaries are impaired by nutrients.”
As part of the initiative, EPA said it plans to “deepen and expand” its partnership with the agricultural sector.
In Ecru, Nowlin still takes care of his family’s cattle and buffalo after moving them to a new part of the farm, away from the ditch where it all began in 2018. Weathered from the many hours trying to prove what feels obvious to him, he still has hope.
“I do think things will turn out okay and justice will come,” Nowlin said.
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