Pillen Family Farms LLC Green Gables near David City on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. (Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press)

Pillen Family Farms — founded by Jim Pillen, Nebraska’s governor — owns scores of hog farms in Nebraska. Part of owning a hog farm is dealing with where to put the hog manure, which can have serious health effects if the nitrate-laden manure gets into drinking water.

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Wells near Pillen Family Farms hog operations have recorded high levels of nitrates. Ingesting nitrates have been linked to a variety of health conditions, including cancer. Pillen Family Farms owns or has owned 108 livestock facilities in Nebraska, but only 27 are required to have wells that are monitored for nitrate. Of those, 16 have recorded levels higher than 50 parts per million, according to the Flatwater Free Press’s review of state records.

One of Pillen Family Farms’ operations recorded a nitrate reading of 445 parts per million — about 45 times the federal standard for safe drinking water. The reading came in 2016. Between 2015 and 2017, the operation recorded a nitrate level of more than 200 ppm multiple times. Experts said the high levels are a “huge, huge, huge human health concern.” The levels recorded at the operation have since dropped to near zero.

There is little enforcement after high nitrate readings. In Nebraska, high nitrate levels do not automatically trigger any enforcement action, and each case is assessed individually, the state said. In 2021, the state determined a Pillen Family Farms facility was “impacting groundwater quality,” but there is no public record of the state further investigating or otherwise acting on that conclusion.

Beyond high nitrate readings, Pillen Family Farms’ operations have been cited for other violations. In 2006, manure from one operation spilled into wetlands and the company did not report it. In 2011, a state inspection suggested another operation was holding more pigs than its permit allowed.

Jim Pillen has not addressed pollution from hog operations since taking office. “He’s ignoring the issue,” one Nebraska farmer said. “He’s not meeting with anybody on this thing. He’s not publicly addressing our concerns.” Last year, before Pillen took office, the state held a hearing on possible changes to rules for large animal operations. There were several recommendations made, but the state has made no progress toward them.

The governor’s office and Pillen Family Farms did not respond to specific questions. In a statement, Pillen Family Farms said it has “always placed a strong commitment on being positive environmental stewards of the land.” The company has never had a permit revoked by the state, the company said.

Type of work:

Investigative / Enterprise In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.