Hurricane Florence’s torrential rains created catastrophic conditions for communities in eastern North Carolina. Five coal ash dumps have released toxic coal ash in the wake of the storm. Dozens of hog-waste lagoons overflowed, releasing disease-carrying bacteria such as salmonella.
Along with tackling the goal of cleaning up their contaminated towns after Florence struck in September, residents of eastern North Carolina also are facing a toxic regulatory environment in Washington. As part of its pro-polluter agenda, the Trump administration has focused on rolling back numerous environmental rules and regulations that would provide relief to residents who live near factory farms in the region.
And now, in the wake of Hurricane Florence and its impacts, 11 environmental and community groups are suing the EPA over its weakening key standards designed to protect communities from toxins entering their environment.
In October 2017, the Trump Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exempted almost all of the largest factory farms from notifying local communities and first responders when their operations threaten air and water quality.
Under the exemption, the nation’s largest pig confinements, egg and dairy operations, chicken and turkey production facilities, and cattle feeding operations — known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) — do not have to report hazardous releases of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other toxic air pollutants.
Factory farm operators often portray the release of emissions from their facilities as harmless and part of their routine agricultural operations. But sudden exposure to these toxic emissions can be fatal: one study found that 19 workers at CAFOs were killed from hydrogen sulfide released during manure agitation. Chronic exposures to lower levels of these pollutants are also associated with a long list of health impacts, from headaches to respiratory irritation to nausea.
In response to the EPA’s factory farm exemption and spurred on by the potential impacts this exemption may have due to Florence, the coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit last Friday challenging the policy. In the lawsuit, the groups contend the EPA’s legal guidance for CAFOs ignores an April 2017 federal court ruling that concluded the agency does not have the statutory authority to create exemptions for reporting toxic emissions from factory farms.
The court ruling overturned a rule finalized in January 2009 — the waning days of the George W. Bush administration — that exempted farms from reporting air releases of hazardous substances.
With former Bush officials and other pro-polluters currently in charge at the EPA, the court ruling didn’t stand a chance. Only a few months after the April 2017 court decision, the Trump administration issued guidance informing farmers of their right to pollute without filing reports.
The Trump administration’s exemption “leaves communities without the information necessary to protect against these harmful releases — information that could be used to avoid exposure, initiate clean-ups, investigate facilities, propose remedial measures, and otherwise keep communities safe from these poisonous substances,” the environmental groups explain in the lawsuit. “This, in turn, leaves them vulnerable to exposure to hazardous chemicals released by animal waste at CAFOs,” the lawsuit says.
Devon Hall, executive director of Duplin County, North Carolina-based Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH), said the full extent of damage to communities in the eastern part of the state from Florence remains unknown. Duplin County, a hub of industrial pig operations, was among the hardest hit by the storm.
“Eliminating this exemption is a simple way to help make sure my neighbors and I are better protected, not just when a hurricane hits but from the day-in and day-out pollution we face,” Hall said Monday in a statement.
In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs want the federal court to rule that the EPA’s reporting exemption for CAFOs was unlawful and violated the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. The plaintiffs asked the court to order the EPA to comply with the act within 30 days of ruling in their favor.
REACH joined the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Center for Food Safety, Don’t Waste Arizona, Environmental Integrity Project, Food & Water Watch, Humane Society of the United States, Sierra Club, Sound Rivers, and Waterkeeper Alliance in filing in the lawsuit. Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of the organizations.
At the state level, the public also doesn’t stand a chance. The North Carolina legislature recently passed the North Carolina Farm Act of 2018, which makes it difficult for individuals to sue farms and agricultural corporations.
This bill was vetoed by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D). But in late June the legislature overrode Cooper’s veto, allowing the bill to become law. In doing so, the legislature restricted the ability of the public from filing lawsuits against CAFOs that pollute their communities.
Scientific evidence shows that people living in communities near these industrial agricultural operations in North Carolina and other states are more likely to suffer a range of negative health consequences, including premature death.
“We were hopeful that, after the court’s 2017 ruling in Waterkeeper Alliance v. EPA, the agency would finally take action to address this serious problem, but instead the EPA is attempting to shield the industry from simply disclosing their pollution to the public,” Kelly Foster, a senior attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance, said in a statement.
These CAFOs are known to release hazardous pollutants that can pose serious risks of illness or death in communities. “It is EPA’s responsibility to protect the public by ensuring information about these releases is disclosed,” Foster said, “not to keep devising new legal strategies to keep it secret.”