FRENCH CAMP — At the end of a remote road lined by houses, children play in yards a short distance from a stagnant, 16.5-acre lagoon filled with the waste sludge of a factory egg farm.
Flies hover over the pond as chicken urine and feces get pumped daily through pipes connected to Olivera Egg Ranch's huge laying facilities, which can house more than 700,000 caged chickens.
Residents of this town say they've complained for years to air and environmental regulators about the waste lagoon, saying the stench and eye-burning fumes give them headaches and nausea. They say nothing has changed.
But after the Humane Society of the United States petitioned state air regulators for an investigation last month, Olivera Egg Ranch was accused of six violations related to expanding and operating its facilities without proper permits.
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The Humane Society also has filed a lawsuit on behalf of 10 area residents, accusing Olivera of failing for years to report its air emissions to federal and state agencies.
On Thursday, a federal judge found Olivera had "spoiled evidence" by dredging the manure lagoon prior to a visit from Humane Society scientists.
"I don't necessarily think the lawsuit is fair or on any solid basis," said Edward Olivera, the farm's owner. Olivera would not comment on the violations, and referred questions to lawyer Jared Mueller, who did not return calls seeking comment but in court papers denied the lawsuit's allegations.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has referred odor complaints over the years to the San Joaquin County Board of Health.
Robert McClellon, a program coordinator for the county board, said Olivera had been cited for violating manure management practices and unacceptable fly breeding. But he said his agency does not regulate ammonia or handle odor complaints.
Some of the farm's neighbors have left the area since it was founded in the late 1990s, but others stayed, farming and raising families.
"My husband and I farmed from sunrise to sunset, we're out there exposed to the smell and whatever else was out there coming from the Olivera farm," said Lita Galicinao, 79, whose late husband, Sam, built a home when they bought land after relocating from the Philippines in 1954.
"So, it was really hard to work in the heat, plus with the smell, a lot of times you feel nauseated, but that's our livelihood. We have to go out there and work."
Prompted by a Humane Society petition for an investigation, the air district issued a string of violations Feb. 5 to the Olivera farm, saying it failed to file required permits. The permits would have spurred regular inspections and could have led to changes.
"Based on our investigation to this point, we feel they were in violation of our rules and regulations," said Morgan Lambert, the air district's director of compliance. Citing the ongoing investigation, he declined further comment.
Upon completion of the investigation, the company could be subject to fines of as much as $10,000 a day for each of the six violations.
The lawsuit, which seeks cleanup and unspecified damages, claims "Olivera has systematically and continuously released unlawful levels of ammonia from the hen houses and manure lagoon into the local community without reporting them as required by (federal law) since at least 2004."
Janice Magaoay, 55, and her husband are plaintiffs. She said she was tired of complaining about the lagoon.
"We're all people and we all deserve to be treated with respect and our children are here and we want to live here," she said. "We shouldn't have to leave because of (the stench) and it shouldn't be legal."