Making a big stink Brooksville woman fears rat manure compost farm poses a health hazard

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BROOKSVILLE – Linda Armstrong’s situation really stinks.

Only it’s got less to do with the dune of rat feces backing up to her fence line on Peach Orchard Road. It’s the chemicals she suspects to be macerating in the summer heat and breaking down the pile into compost.

“They’re doing something with chemicals at night,” Armstrong said. She wakes up sick and her husband goes to work before sunrise and smells chemicals coming off Justin Penfold’s rat farm. “I believe it’s the worst (manure pile there), and it just envelopes.”

The one near Armstrong’s property, when standing 100 feet away with the draft of an impending rain, might give the impression the smell is minimal, she said. But walk close enough to the fence line, and wait a moment for the fumes, and your stomach will turn, activate your gag reflex, and leave you with a headache for hours to come.

“When he puts a fresh pile out there it’s like putting your head in a bucket of poo, and breathing it constantly,” Armstrong said. “This is a health hazard and nobody should have to live like this. It turns my stomach.”

There is reason to question the potential health risks this heap poses, being so close to Armstrong’s home. The other manure piles on Penfold’s property give off a smell more like normal compost, what one might recognize after tearing open a bag of fertilizer.

Penfold could not be reached for comment.

Armstrong suspects methane, in combination with ammonia or a host of other chemicals, has produced the “long list” of symptoms she’s experienced recently: headache, body pain, sinus problems and asthma.

“It’s incredible,” she said. “It’s not the odor – it’s the sickness.”

And this is coming from a woman who calls herself “a farm girl,” who worked in a Tyson Foods plant in Oklahoma with 15,000 chickens for a year. There, the manure went into a storage facility.

“And it didn’t make me sick – it’s something about the rats,” she said. “I’m not against farmers. This is too close to me.”

The situation has her and other neighbors in fear of another flood in the area, which lies in a low-level plane where one neighbor has five horses, Armstrong said. Some in the area have well water, and with all the heavy rain, she has concerns about run-off and seepage contaminating drinking water.

“That’s a drainage retention area, and that’s why we contacted the county health department,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said the county didn’t see a health risk when they came but she disagrees. The other day she went up the road to her mailbox and almost blacked out, she said.

Then the same thing happened to her son, and now they’d appreciate the county taking another look.

“This is incredible,” Armstrong said. “that the county is jeopardizing my health like this.”

Albert Gray, environmental manager of Hernando County Health Department, said there are no open complaints on the property right now, but he recalls the department investigating roughly two years ago.

“It was resolved fairly quickly, and I think we had some fly-breeding problems,” Gray said. “He has compost, which is going to smell, but apparently this is a commercial operation where he’s raising rabbits, rats, and mice for sale to pet stores for snake consumption.”

The end result was minor changes to Penfold’s operation, Gray said, but what Armstrong is describing is different than the initial investigation.

“The compost has to be dry, that’s the problem: when it rains it starts breeding flies and maggots,” Gray said. “We can go back out there if she’s still complaining. The compost pile we saw was right by the building. We didn’t see one by the property line so that must be new.”

Armstrong said she contacted the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Agriculture, but was told everything is county regulated, so there was nothing they could do to address health or environmental concerns.

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