Livestock farming — especially hog and poultry farming — is big business in North Carolina. The country’s second-largest pig producer and third-largest chicken producer, North Carolina has thousands of farming operations clustered throughout the state. And while those farms produce billions of dollars in economic revenue, they also produce something far more sinister: millions of tons of animal waste that can make its way into the air or water, polluting nearby communities and watersheds.
In an effort to help spotlight the issue of animal farming and waste disposal in North Carolina, Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group have teamed up to release a first-of-its-kind mapping project, detailing exactly where North Carolina’s hog and poultry farms are located. The project also claims to be the first to reveal the location of more than 3,900 poultry operations across the state, the locations of which have not been publicly available until now.
As it’s being released into the air, it’s what we have to breathe
“By displaying this information, it’s clear to see the proximity of all the CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations] to people’s homes, communities, and other facilities,” Christian Breen, a CAFO field specialist with Waterkeeper Alliance, said on a press call. “Combined with full demographic census information, we’re now able to see who specifically is being impacted by these facilities. There is no longer a question of the CAFO industry’s impact on the communities of North Carolina.”
According to a report released in 2008 by the Government Accountability Office, five contiguous counties in North Carolina were home to over 7.5 million hogs in 2002, creating what the report estimated to be as much as 15.5 million tons of manure. Hog farmers are required to apply for permits with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, specifying how they intend to deal with their manure, and many farmers chose to deal with their manure by keeping it in open-air pits called lagoons, before spraying the manure onto nearby fields. But lagoons can often be unlined, or leak during storms, threatening local groundwater. Moreover, the simple act of spraying manure at hundreds of gallons per minute can cause problems for neighboring communities that range from a nuisance to serious health concerns.
Elise Herring, a North Carolina resident who lives on land that has been in her family for over 100 years, told reporters on a press call that living by a hog farming operation made her feel like she was “held prisoner in [her] own home.”
“As it’s being released into the air, it’s what we have to breathe. We can’t spend an extended period of time outside,” Herring said. “We can’t sit out anymore, we can’t hang clothes on the line anymore, and when we do get exposed outside you get a headache because the smell is so overwhelming. You start gagging, you cough, you get depressed because your freedoms are being taken away from you.” Herring also noted that she can no longer depend on her property’s well water, and she fears it might be contaminated by the nearby farming operations.
Recent science has also connected North Carolina’s CAFOs to contaminated water. According to a 2015 study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of North Carolina, streams near large industrial farms tend to be laden with bacteria from animal feces, with many exceeding state guidelines for fecal bacteria like E. coli.
Other states that produce a great deal of animal manure, like Maryland, have considered ways other than spraying to deal with their waste streams. In Maryland, legislators have long pushed for chicken manure — of which the state’s poultry industry produces millions of pounds each year — to be converted into energy through technology like anaerobic digesters, which break down manure into a biogas that can be used to create electricity. Proponents of projects such as these argue that they take a waste stream like manure and turn it into an economic benefit for farmers, while cutting down on water pollution, in the form of nutrient runoff, and air pollution, in the form of potent greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide. Community opposition and uncertain technology has thus far hamstrung many anaerobic digestion projects around the country, however.
According to Breen, one of the major problems with the CAFO system in North Carolina that the map highlights is the sheer concentration of pig and poultry farms throughout the state — often, major operations are located in close proximity to one another, crammed onto a small floodplain or watershed. That simply compounds the dangers posed to waterways, Breen said, because watersheds are expected to handle overwhelming amounts of animal waste.
“Swine and cattle have a permitting process,” Breen said. “The location of these facilities is crucial in that permitting process, because since you have such a high proximity of these facilities combined, it makes for a mess downstream.” Breen suggested that the DEQ has not been paying enough attention to the overall concentration of CAFOs when approving permits for new operations.
Groups Sue Over North Carolina’s Ag Gag Law, Saying It Violates The ConstitutionClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/Emery Dalesio Last year, North Carolina made it nearly impossible for citizens to legally…thinkprogress.org“The state of North Carolina really should have paid attention during the permitting process,” he said. “They need to manage the waste runoff of these facilities because it is impairing the waterways.”
By having this map, people can see how many of these operations are located in our neighborhoods and how close they are located to our homes
In September of last year, Waterkeeper Alliance — along with Earthjustice, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, and Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help — filed a civil rights complaint with the EPA, alleging that North Carolina’s permitting process and regulation of hog waste disposal disproportionately impacts low-income communities of color.
Last year, the North Carolina legislature also passed a bill that gives businesses 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 is considered by many opponents to be a form of an “ag-gag” bill, meant to silence whistleblowers that seek to expose animal welfare or environmental violations within the agriculture industry.
Although North Carolina’s animal farming operations are subject to inspection annually, many states lack adequate funding to deploy inspectors on a regular basis.
For Herring, who knows all too well the consequences associated with living next to a hog farm, there is hope that the newly-published map will help inform the public about the pervasiveness of the problem.
“By having this map, people can see how many of these operations are located in our neighborhoods and how close they are located to our homes,” she said. “I’m hopeful that this map will bring some light to our situation.”