On Wednesday, both the North Carolina House and Senate voted to override Gov. Pat McCroy’s veto of House Bill 405 — referred to by opponents as North Carolina’s “ag-gag” law. The bill is set to become law January 1, and environmentalists are worried that its impacts won’t be limited to animal rights and potential whistle-blowers.
“It would have an environmental effect,” Gray Jernigan, staff attorney and communications coordinator with Waterkeeper Alliance told ThinkProgress. “If there was a spill of swine waste due to a lagoon failure, or an equipment malfunction on a hog facility, this would really make an employee second-guess whether they call environment or public health officials to come respond to the problem.”
The bill gives businesses in North Carolina the right to sue someone for gaining access to a nonpublic area in order to obtain workplace secrets or take photographs or video of workplace violations. The bill’s supporters say that it helps protect businesses from bad actors and strengthens private property rights, but opponents of the bill worry that its broad language might deter whistle-blowers and private citizens alike from reporting workplace violations — especially within the state’s large agricultural sector.
North Carolina is one of the country’s leading producers of hogs and pigs — the two top counties in the country in terms of hog and pig sales are Duplin and Sampson, both located along North Carolina’s eastern coast. Most of those pigs are raised in factory farms, with an average of 4,300 hogs per farm in the state.
The hog industry is big business, with sales totaling $2.9 billion in 2012, but it also leaves North Carolina with a big problem: how to dispose of the millions of tons of waste created by the hogs each year.
To combat the waste problem, hog farmers have adopted the lagoon and sprayfield system, using open-air pits called lagoons to store the manure before it is applied to nearby fields. But, as Jernigan points out, lagoons are often unlined or leaking, threatening contamination of ground and surface water around the farm.
“I think the lagoon and sprayfield system of waste disposal, at hog facilities in particular, is really just a broken system,” Jernigan said. “It leads to pollution of the air, through emissions of gases and odors from the exposed waste sitting out in the open air, it leads to groundwater contamination from unlined or poorly-lined lagoons, and it results in surface water and further groundwater pollution from spraying on a ditch or open field that is sitting in an area of exposed groundwater.”
Many of North Carolina’s concentrated hog farming operations are located along the state’s Eastern shore, in an area that was historically swamp and wetland — these are areas that tend to be more prone to flooding, heightening the risk that waste from hog farms could enter North Carolina’s drinking water, Jernigan said.
In January, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of North Carolina published a study looking at bacterial contamination in rivers directly next to North Carolina’s pig farms. For a year, they tested waters both up and downstream from factory pig farms, and found that both samples contained high amounts of fecal matter — some in excess of state and federal recreational water quality guidelines for fecal coliforms, E. coli, and Enterococcus.
According to a report in Environmental Health News, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources treats large pig farming operations as “non-discharge facilities,” meaning that the farms aren’t subject to state rules about how to monitor and dispose of their waste. Under state regulations, pig farms are subject to inspections twice a year.
To Bob Martin, program director of the Food System Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, existing regulatory framework doesn’t go far enough to ensure that North Carolina’s hog farms aren’t polluting neighboring water and air. Martin, who looked at factory farming intensively for three years as part of a joint JHSPH-Pew Charitable Trusts Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, told ThinkProgress that during its three-year look at factory farming in America, the commission found that almost all states are woefully underfunded when it comes to inspecting factory farms.
“There aren’t enough resources allocated by state governments and state legislatures to adequately enforce the law,” Martin said, noting that it can be especially difficult to catch a farm breaking environmental regulations if you’re only looking twice a year.
Jernigan shares Martin’s concern, and worries that the newly passed law will make it more difficult for citizen or employees to report environmental violations as they occur.
“Here in North Carolina, the regulations and the inspections and enforcement regime is totally inadequate,” he said. “It’s essentially a self-reporting and complaint-based system right now, and this bill would effectively discourage self-reporting. This would silence citizen complaints and it would also silence self-reporting.”
In February, the EPA announced it would launch an investigation into North Carolina’s hog farm regulations — environmental and civil rights groups have long claimed that the state is lax about regulating the factory farms because they tend to be located next to poor communities of color. To Martin, House Bill 405 would become another way for the state to silence these already disenfranchised communities.
“They are oftentimes people with the least power in society, and this last avenue of showing what is happening in their lives would be maybe illegal,” he said. “It’s really outrageous.”