Working to Protect North Carolina’s Communities and Waters from Industrial Animal Agriculture Pollution

by Geoff Gisler, Senior Attorney, The Southern Environmental Center Category:

Spring is in the air in North Carolina. For many of us, that means opening our windows to let the fresh air in, playing with our kids in the yard, or sitting back and relaxing in a rocking chair on the front porch. For North Carolinians who live near industrial hog operations, however, these rites of Spring are distant memories.

The coastal plain of North Carolina is littered with industrial hog facilities—concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the legal terminology. The state is second to only Iowa in annual pork production. Thousands of CAFOs are concentrated in eastern North Carolina, with the greatest densities in Duplin and Sampson counties. Each of these facilities hosts hundreds or even thousands of hogs, which are typically brought in to the facility as piglets and kept on site until they reach slaughter weight. After the hogs are taken away, their waste is left behind.

It’s that waste that haunts nearby communities, which are disproportionately low-income communities of color. The waste from the hogs is collected and stored in unlined, open-air storage pits called lagoons. The waste is then sprayed onto nearby fields to be used as fertilizer for crops or grasses.

The effects of this antiquated system of spraying hog waste on open fields are devastating.  The odor from the nearby facilities keeps neighbors from opening windows, playing in the yard, hanging the laundry out to dry, exercising, or doing any number of activities that most folks take for granted.  Unsurprisingly, property values near industrial hog operations are lower as a result.

The damage to the environment is similarly severe. Although the state of North Carolina treats CAFOs as “non-discharge” facilities, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Geological Survey recently conducted research demonstrating that isn’t so. In the 2015 report, rivers and streams near CAFOs had significantly higher levels of nutrients as a result of pollution from the facilities.

When it comes to the health of our waterways, that pollution matters. In recent years, the Cape Fear, Pamlico, and Neuse rivers, each of which has significant numbers of CAFOs in its watershed, have all had algal blooms or fish kills stemming from too many nutrients polluting the rivers. Some of those blooms were toxic in their own right—leading the State to encourage people to stay away from large parts of the rivers. Even the non-toxic blooms, however, disrupt the ecosystem. Algae consume oxygen in the river and lower pH. In the end, the fish, insects, and other animals that make up a healthy system don’t have enough oxygen.

With the help of The Orton Foundation, an affiliate of Louis Bacon’s Moore Charitable Foundation, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) is working to reverse the damage done by CAFOs. We’re in federal court to hold Murphy-Brown to a settlement agreement reached in 2006, which requires cleanup at 11 company-owned facilities with serious lagoon issues or demonstrated groundwater pollution.  We’re asking the court to require the company to allow an independent expert on site to assess the problems with the facilities’ lagoons or the source of known groundwater contamination.  It’s the first step in ensuring that these facilities are accountable for their pollution.

We’re also active in the state legislature, working to push back on a reclassification of the lower Cape Fear River that would allow the state to avoid cleaning up pollution from CAFOs and other sources upstream. The Cape Fear suffers from periods of low dissolved oxygen and pH due to nutrient pollution from upstream. After more than a decade of recognizing that the portion of the river near Wilmington wasn’t meeting water quality standards intended to protect the fish, insects, and other animals that live in the Cape Fear, the N.C. Environmental Management Commission voted to change the standards to allow the river to remain polluted. We’ll continue to work to hold upstream dischargers, including CAFOs, responsible for the damage done to the Cape Fear downstream.

We’re grateful for our partnership with The Orton Foundation that helps make this work possible.

Geoff Gisler is a Senior Attorney at The Southern Environmental Center’s Chapel Hill Office. The Orton Foundation has partnered with the SELC since 2001.