A hog feedlot in Duplin County, N.C. Photographer: Travis Dove for Bloomberg Businessweek

A hog feedlot in Duplin County, N.C. Photo: Travis Dove for Bloomberg Businessweek


Promoting a Sustainable Future for Agriculture in North Carolina

by Cordon Smart Category:

Last week, The Moore Charitable Foundation team attended the 2016 Waterkeeper Alliance Conference in Wilmington, North Carolina. The location of the event underscored Waterkeeper’s significant efforts to address the environmental destruction and injustice caused by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). As part of MCF’s ongoing support of partners and experts addressing this critical water and human rights issue, we are featuring a series of blog posts that look at the CAFOs dilemma from different angles.

Speeding down I-40 through Duplin County, NC, many people will pass through the sea of pine trees and farmland without giving it a second thought. But linger here a bit longer and you will quickly learn that Duplin County, located within the Cape Fear River watershed, has the highest concentration of industrial hog farms in the nation. These industrial facilities, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), are a far cry from our preconceived notions of small family farms in rural America: They raise hundreds­—if not thousands—of animals within confined structures.

Along with this industry comes more waste than you can possibly imagine. Located largely within low-income, African-American communities, these facilities discharge millions of tons of raw animal waste into the environment each year, posing substantial environmental justice concerns to local communities and threatening our state’s rivers and waterways.

Growing up in Charlotte, NC, I was raised on eastern North Carolina barbecue—like most everyone else. Until recently, the word “CAFO” was not yet in my vocabulary; the very existence of them a distant concern, if a concern at all. Certainly, I had zero awareness of how many are located in this state.

This changed when I started law school at the University of North Carolina in 2014. I came to law school with an interest in environmental law and quickly became involved with the Environmental Law Project (ELP), a student-led organization dedicated to expanding opportunities available to law students in this field. This organization serves a valuable resource for law students interested in gaining practical legal experience and learning more about some of the pressing environmental issues in the state. As part of fulfilling its mission, ELP works with non-profit environmental organizations in the state to provide students with opportunities to complete pro-bono work in the state.

As part of my involvement with ELP, I served as a pro-bono volunteer with Earthjustice in support of its efforts to reform the regulation of CAFOs within the state. With the assistance of Earthjustice, several community organizations have filed a civil rights complaint, alleging that the state’s regulation of hog CAFOs has a disparate impact on minority populations in eastern North Carolina.

Through my work with Earthjustice, I was able to see the environmental impacts of these facilities on a more personal level. I had the opportunity to interview residents about their experience living near hog CAFOs in the state. These residents recounted how hog waste is sprayed on their properties and homes, and how they endure the stench emanating from the enormous open-air lagoons of hog waste and dumpsters or “dead boxes” filled with dead animals outside of these facilities. These people—many of whom are lifelong residents of the community—are no longer able to enjoy the many activities that I take for granted. They were scared to drink their water for fear of contamination and at times were unable to even go outside or open a window due to the overwhelming stench from these facilities. Speaking to these people opened my eyes to the environmental and social harm that continues to occur mostly out of view.

As a law student, I have become disenchanted with a legal system that seems to favor corporate farming interests over the citizens that it is intended to protect. For many like myself, CAFOs operate out of sight and out of mind.

However, many organizations and institutions have and continue to do great work to raise awareness about the true impacts of these facilities, providing young people with many different ways to get involved:

  • Environmental non-profit organizations such as Earthjustice, Southern Environmental Law Center, and Waterkeeper Alliance continue to advocate for stricter environmental regulation of CAFOs within the state.
  • Community-based organizations such as the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) and Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH) have led efforts to organize residents and advocate for change within these affected communities.
  • Within the University of North Carolina and other universities across the state, professors and students continue to document and research the environmental, health, and social impacts of these facilities.

My hope is that more people will look beyond the unassuming backdrop in eastern North Carolina and appreciate the environmental harm that is occurring right under their noses. Louis Bacon’s Orton Foundation continues to provide critical leadership on this issue through its conservation initiatives and generous support of environmental organizations such as the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Waterkeeper Alliance. Reforming the agricultural practices in the state will not be easy. However, each one of us can and should continue to educate the public about the true environmental and social impact of these facilities in order to effectively advocate for a more sustainable solution.

Cordon Smart is a second-year law student at the UNC School of Law and serves as the President of the Environmental Law Project, a student-led organization dedicated to expanding opportunities available to students in environmental law.