By Ellen Simon
Hurricane Florence left North Carolina awash in hog waste. We have an opportunity this year to take important steps to address our waste problem, which troubles the state under clear skies as well.
The state’s nearly 10 million hogs, most of which live on industrial-sized operations, generate roughly 9.5 billion gallons of waste annually. That waste is stored in unlined open cesspools, then sprayed, untreated, on nearby cropland. In Duplin County, N.C. alone, 2.2 million hogs produce twice as much untreated manure as the sewage from the entire New York City metro area.
The system is cheap for producers, but it costs North Carolina an uncounted fortune: Toxic emissions from industrial hog operations foul our air; contaminants from the operations pollute our waters; and neighbors of its industrial operations live shorter lives.
Because so many of the neighbors are African-American or Latino, the pattern of where industrial swine operations are located is generally recognized as environmental racism. The misery of living near an industrial hog operation has been made clear by three recent nuisance trials, in which neighbors of these operations were awarded almost $500 million in damages.
North Carolina, the nation’s No. 2 hog producer after Iowa, has a chance this year to win stronger pollution controls and more transparency from the pork industry.
If you live in North Carolina, or if you know someone who does, you can help.
North Carolina’s industrial swine producers operate under a waste management permit issued by the state’s environmental regulator, the Department of Environmental Quality. That permit, which is revised and renewed in five-year cycles, is up for renewal.
The permit has been renewed, essentially unchanged, for almost two decades. This year represents a rare opportunity to improve it. That’s because the spate of recent nuisance decisions against the industry, the ravages of Hurricane Florence, and a recent health study have underscored the need for more pollutions controls, more transparency, and more active regulatory oversight.
For the first time, thanks to a civil rights settlement that resulted from legal action by Waterkeeper Alliance and its allies, an independent third party will moderate the public meetings about the permit.
Also thanks to the civil rights settlement, the environmental regulator’s draft of the permit included suggestions from Waterkeeper Alliance and its allies.
Broadly, we’d like to see Smithfield Foods and other pork giants, which make hundreds of millions of dollars from North Carolina, shoulder responsibility for managing the waste produced by the animals they own. In the current system, that responsibility primarily falls on contractors, many of whom carry debt they incurred when they invested in the infrastructure these pork giants demanded to house their hogs.
To ensure the state has — and is using — the information it needs to keep our air and water safe, we’d like to see the state’s Department of Environmental Quality collect or require the collection of data to assess hog waste pollution. This includes:
- Mandatory groundwater monitoring when there’s evidence of pollution in nearby groundwater, well water, or surface water;
- Required use by swine operators of a formula, which was created at great taxpayer expense, to evaluate the risk of phosphorus pollution when animal waste is applied to cropland;
- Monthly electronic submission of records made under the permit, including records of when and how much waste is sprayed on cropland, what crops it’s sprayed on, and what happens to sludge, the solid remnants, that accumulate in cesspools;
- All this data should be publicly available.
Monthly filing of these reports is important because, under the current system, hog waste pollution records are not filed with the state. Since they’re not, they’re not treated as public records. As a result, the public has no access to the information in these records and the important details they include about the risk posed to public health or the environment by permitted operations.
Worse, state regulators typically look at these records during inspections, not in the aggregate. As a result, North Carolina’s environmental regulators don’t have the big-picture view of hog waste pollution they need to protect the public.
If you live in North Carolina, you can join us in demanding more transparency and more pollution controls. You can speak up for North Carolina’s creeks, rivers, and lakes. You can speak up for hog farms’ neighbors.
Under the civil rights settlement, the state must hold at least one public meeting about the permit in Duplin or Sampson counties, where people live with the highest density of hog farms in the country. The civil rights settlement also requires the agency to announce a meeting at that location at least a month in advance.
Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happened.
The state’s Department of Environmental Quality scheduled the first public meeting to take place in Greenville on Oct. 4. Then, after Hurricane Florence, the agency rescheduled the Greenville meeting for Nov. 27.
On Nov. 15, the parties to the civil rights settlement met to discuss the agency’s compliance with the agreement. When confronted with its commitment to hold a meeting in one of the counties most affected by swine production, the agency chose, instead of holding a second meeting, to announce a late-day switch, keeping the date for the public meeting, but moving it to a different location, in Sampson County.
The meeting is now scheduled to take place at the Sampson County Exposition Center, 414 Warsaw Rd., Clinton, N.C. 28328. The meeting will be held Tuesday, Nov. 27, in two sessions, one from 9 am to 4 pm and another beginning at 6 pm.
During the first session, stakeholders will rotate between five areas designed to solicit technical comments on sections of the permit. During the evening session, those technical comments will be summarized and input on them will be solicited from the public.
If you can make it to either the 9 am to 4 pm or 6 pm evening session of the Nov. 27 meeting at the Sampson County Exposition Center, RSVP here. If you know someone in the state who might be able to attend, please send them this post.
This year, your voice can make a difference.