A CAFO stores toxic hog waste in an open pit.

Environmental Injustice is Toxic

by Marc Yaggi Category: ,

Imagine a world where many times when you walked out your front door, you immediately were accosted by the overwhelming stench of animal waste.  Imagine a world where you couldn’t invite friends to your home for fear their eyes and throats would burn from the fetid stench.  Imagine a world where your health, and the health of your family, was at risk every day because the air you are breathing is saturated with toxic chemicals and bacteria.

This world is a reality for people like Elsie Herring, who lives in rural North Carolina near a hog factory farm where she has endured a form of discrimination that rarely draws much attention.  Polluting industries and industrial-waste sites often are located in low-income communities, especially communities of color that offer the least political resistance. These massive factory farms generate enormous amounts of untreated animal waste, which is stored in giant cesspools and sprayed on fields until they are so saturated that the waste runs off and pollutes nearby streams and rivers – streams and rivers that local communities use for swimming, drinking, and fishing.  In the United States, the costs of pollution like this are borne disproportionately by African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. In North Carolina, more than 2,200 hog factory farms housing more than 10 million hogs are located disproportionately in the eastern part of the state, where there is a predominance of communities of color.

Experts estimate that each hog produces 10 times the fecal waste as a human.  Therefore, these North Carolinians are living next to the equivalent of the fecal waste of 100 million humans.   Not only are these local residents plagued by the constant stench and pollution from these facilities, but studies have shown that those who live near them may also suffer from higher rates of respiratory problems, anxiety, depression and sleep disturbances. These communities have been asking for relief for more than two decades, but nothing has changed.

In September 2014, Waterkeeper Alliance and partner North Carolina groups, represented by Earthjustice, filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Civil Rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 alleging that North Carolina’s lax regulation of hog waste disposal discriminates against communities of color in eastern North Carolina.  But we face an uphill battle: in 22 years, EPA has never issued a finding of a civil rights violation. Recently, EPA has launched a new initiative to reform its own policies in light of its horrendous enforcement record. However, many of the agency’s proposed reforms effectively would render Title VI useless as a recourse for communities of color for protection from environmental injustices.  We continue to advocate that EPA should take every complaint seriously out of respect for citizens lacking the political and economic clout to have their voices heard otherwise.

We are grateful for the Orton Foundation’s unyielding support for environmental justice.  We know that we can never have equality if we, as a society, continue to foul the air and water with impunity in poor and minority communities. This is a moral cause and we must call on EPA to strengthen its policies and start getting serious about upholding Title VI.  Take action here to tell EPA to enforce Title VI.  It’s time we all stand up for people like Elsie Herring and make sure they are afforded the same protections as the rest of us.

Marc A. Yaggi, Executive Director, Waterkeeper Alliance. Louis Bacon and The Moore Charitable Foundation are proud partners.