Boone inventor has a way to ‘set global warming back on its heels’ — if he could use it – WFAE
What if you came up with a way to help save the planet, but you were barred from using it? That’s how a Boone inventor describes his 25-year fight to use the patented industrial composting system he devised in the 1970s.
Jay Carter experimented for years to develop his system for simultaneously composting both animal and plant matter. From 1982 until 2008, when a judge shut it down, his business Rockwater Farms in Boone accepted organic material such as vegetable and plant matter, cardboard, manure and dead animals. He spread it in alternating layers and allowed it to ferment for up to 18 months.
The result: a nutrient-rich black humus that he sold to local gardeners, landscapers and farmers.
“The compost business, it was my moneymaker. I was making $100,000 a year off that thing and reinvesting $100,000 into the compost (business). I mean, I was on top,” Carter said.
Most large-scale composting uses naturally occurring bacteria to help the composted material decompose in what’s called an “aerobic” process. It requires air. Another technique called “anaerobic composting” relies on bacteria that don’t need oxygen. It works at lower temperatures, takes longer and can smell bad.
Carter developed a way to use both methods in a single pile near his home in Boone.
“That big circular pile is a minimum of 30 feet tall, OK? And it’s 100-and-some feet across. And it’s like 30- to 40-feet wide. All right, that is a bio-engine. It’s nothing but organic material,” he said.
Carter’s invention was a good business. He said it could also be good for the planet if it were used to compost organic matter from the world’s landfills and to replace the world’s lost topsoil.
“We could set global warming back on its heels, if we would harvest these landfills, get this compost out and spread it a foot deep everywhere,” Carter said.
When Carter started Rockwater Farms, the state Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, or DENR (now called the Department of Environmental Quality), did not regulate composting.
“I had gone to DENR back in ’72 and said, ‘This is what I want to do. What do I have to do to work with you guys?’ They said, we don’t have any rules or regulations for composting. Go do what you want,” Carter said.
But then in the mid-1990s the rules changed and he ran into trouble with state environmental regulators. At the same time, a neighbor with whom Carter had an ongoing feud began organizing residents and calling public officials to complain about Carter’s operation.
In the midst of these complaints, in 2000, Carter was granted a United States Patent for his “Method of Simultaneously Composting Anaerobic and Aerobic Material.” But a patent doesn’t trump environmental regulations.
In 2008, after a two-year investigation, state regulators accused him of operating a trash dump without a permit and charged him with six misdemeanors, including improperly disposing of dead animals. He said they failed to study his technology and didn’t recognize what he was doing as composting.
“And I’m saying, ‘You can’t do this to me because I’m patented. You have to come back, you got to research me.’ They said ‘we’re not doing it,'” Carter said.
After a criminal trial in state court, the judge gave him a 45-day suspended sentence plus a $250 fine — and ordered Carter to shut the operation down.
“They could have given me time to move my compost to another piece of land. But they said, ‘No, you’ve got to quit right now,'” he said.
The 72-year-old Carter has been fighting ever since, for his reputation, his livelihood and his technology. He tried working with researchers at several colleges, but none of those projects lasted very long.
A brilliant and sometimes prickly man
People who know Carter call him a brilliant tinkerer and problem solver, who can be prickly at times. Carter also says he has Asperger’s, an autism-related diagnosis that makes him unusually persistent. He invented a streamlined soap-making process that turned into a successful business for his ex-wife.
He had a tofu business for a few years, and he’s known as an excellent rock mason, said Frank Bolick, of Boone, a retired farmer and agricultural extension agent. Bolick, who has known Carter since the 1980s, said Carter’s system works.
“It has to be done correctly. It’s like farming. It’s as much art as it is science. If I could describe it, basically it’s like a layering technique,” Bolick said.
By alternating aerobic and anaerobic composting, Carter came up with something nobody had tried before, and it worked, said Leonard Bull, of Wilmington, a retired NC State University agriculture professor. Bull visited Carter’s operation about 20 years ago.
“The concern I have is from the standpoint of any leaching of liquid of any kind, whether it’s rainwater flowing through, or whatever, into the groundwater, and the contamination of water with bugs that you don’t want in the water,” Bull said.
That’s the main concern for North Carolina environmental regulators, too. DEQ says state rules for composting govern the location, proximity to waterways and runoff. DEQ’s Jason Watkins said in an email that Carter has never obtained a permit for composting in Boone or anywhere else. Watkins said there’s nothing stopping him from applying.
In 2017, Carter tried to restart the operation, but got in trouble again. A judge found him in contempt for violating the 2008 court order, and he spent two weeks in jail. Carter now wants to sue the judge in that original case for violating his constitutional rights by denying him a jury trial — if only he could find a lawyer willing to take the case for free.
Meanwhile, Carter’s patent expired in 2020. He said he has spent millions of dollars on his invention, and understands it will take a lot more money to restart the business and meet permit requirements — money he doesn’t have.
“I could if they wanted to hire me as a consultant, or some guy wanted to back me and we could buy the proper piece of land and the trucks and everything. I mean, I’m broke. They’ve taken all my money,” he said.
Carter is bitter but holds out hope. Asked if he has ever considered letting it all go, he recalls his 10th grade civics teacher, who told him: “If your constitutional rights are violated, you fight to get them back or you die.”