New Swine Waste Permit Fails to Protect Communities & Water

This should be the last General Permit for industrial hog operations that the sanctions the lagoon and sprayfield system. Period.
Manure and other factory farm waste being sprayed into the air and onto fields in a community in eastern North Carolina in the days before Hurricane Matthew (WKA, Oct. 7, 2016).
Credit: Waterkeeper Alliance

This should be the last North Carolina General Permit for industrial hog operations that sanctions the lagoon and sprayfield system. Period.

Imagine that you’ve come home to visit your family’s longtime home in a rural area where you have fond memories of spending time outside together. When you are gathering outside with your parents, grilling, the wind changes just a little bit and immediately, you are hit with a mist and a sickening stench. You recoil, collect yourself, and ask your parents what could possibly be causing such a revolting problem? They answer that it is probably one of the many industrial hog operations crowded in eastern North Carolina, and they’re probably spraying the untreated waste into the air near the home.

—Hon. Jessie Ladson, Duplin County Commissioner (board member of REACH)

Recently, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released its final General Permit for industrial swine operations (which governs waste handling at these food animal production facilities). The General Permit contains a single set of “rules of the road” for the vast majority of the more than two thousand industrial hog operations in the state. Operators store the manure in open cesspools (often unlined) and dispose of it by spraying it untreated into the air and onto neighboring fields, and the General Permit licenses these practices. More than causing putrid smells, these practices create massive health risks for community members and pollute the environment.

As DEQ prepared the new permit, NRDC and partners participated in a stakeholder process and comment periods to hold the Agency accountable for producing a better permit. While the new permit contains some long overdue and important steps in the right direction (such as groundwater monitoring at some of the most vulnerable waste cesspools), this permit is still woefully inadequate to protect communities and the environment. It also fails to hold the multi-national corporations that dominate the industry, such as the integrator Smithfield or its parent company, accountable for pollution or health harms. 

Three of the biggest failures of this lackluster permit are its:

  1. Continued rubber-stamping of the antiquated lagoon and sprayfield system;
  2. Lack of protections for communities of concern, especially failure to include an environmental justice tool that takes cumulative impacts of pollution on vulnerable communities into account; and
  3. Five-year duration, given the rapid increase in storms and potential for deploying new technology.

The impacts of these policy failures present real, concrete dangers for the communities, and disproportionately burden communities of color in eastern North Carolina where industrial hog facilities are clustered.

This should be the last permit the sanctions the lagoon and sprayfield system

We have long known the lagoon and sprayfield system is not safe, and with increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes the problems at these aging lagoons are getting worse. Currently, approximately 62 industrial hog operations house more than 235,000 hogs in the 100-year floodplain in eastern North Carolina. Last year, during and after Hurricane Florence, six lagoons suffered structural damage and 33 overflowed, discharging an enormous amount of hog feces into the surrounding environment. This isn’t a new problem. More than 20 years ago, an expert panel convened by the state of North Carolina determined that the lagoon and sprayfield system was outdated and unsafe. In 2001, NRDC’s report, Cesspools of Shame, explored the dangers of this system and highlighted alternatives. There are alternative technologies that are much safer than the lagoon and sprayfield system. DEQ should move now to transition the industry to these modern technologies so that by the time DEQ starts to think of the next permit, the lagoon and sprayfield system is already a thing of the past.

DEQ needs to adopt a comprehensive Environmental Justice tool, because there can be no meaningful safeguards without taking cumulative impacts of pollution on vulnerable populations into account

I’m down in North Carolina in a black community where they’re dealing with one of most horrific environmental injustices I’ve ever seen. In Duplin County where you have these massive CAFOs [factory farms] in corporate agriculture and they take these massive lagoons of pig shit and they spray it over fields that happened to be in black communities. I could take you down there and show you the stuff misting into neighborhoods where people crowded into a room to tell me that they can’t open their windows, they can’t run their air conditioning. They have respiratory diseases, cancers. . . .

—Senator Cory Booker, on Pod Save America, March 20, 2019

Hog facilities emit dangerous pollution and in North Carolina, and research shows that they disproportionately burden low-income communities and communities of color. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  even expressed “deep concern” that DEQ’s failure to correct this problem was a violation of federal civil rights law. In response, DEQ promised to create an environmental justice mapping tool to inform its permitting decisions. DEQ agreed to “review and, as appropriate, and incorporate available data that are relevant to environmental, demographic, and health factors.” But, despite its stated goal of having it ready by April 2019, the Agency is still developing this tool. DEQ has also indicated that it may not take cumulative impacts of pollution into account, which is deeply troubling and may render the tool itself useless. DEQ must create a robust environmental justice tool that measures the total burden of pollution on communities, and it must use that tool to make fair permitting decisions.

A proper tool must also account for pollution coming from more than just the swine facilities. The influx of poultry operations in eastern North Carolina has added a significant environmental burden to these communities. According to the Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance, the number of birds in poultry operations in North Carolina rose from 147 million in 1997 to 516 million in 2018. During this time, the number of industrial poultry operations also increased dramatically with larger annual increases in the most recent years. Waterkeeper and EWG found that the two counties with the most hog production (Duplin and Sampson Counties) are also the top two counties for poultry production. These facilities are clustered tightly together (within Duplin and Sampson counties, an astonishing 93 percent of the poultry operations are within three miles of at least 20 other poultry or swine farms), placing an intense pollution burden on nearby waters and communities.

Poultry Operations Packed Into Sampson and Duplin Counties
Credit: Waterkeeper Alliance and Environmental Working Group (

The concentration of poultry operations in the same areas as the most intense concentration of hog operations compounds these pollution, health, and justice problems. The poultry operations produce many of the same pollutants as hog operations, and these pollutants exacerbate the impacts of one another. For example, industrial animal facilities generally emit ammonia and nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide, methane, particulate matter, pathogens, volatile organic compounds, and volatile fatty acids. In 2016, DEQ reported that poultry operations are the largest and fastest growing source of dangerous nitrates and phosphorous from animal waste in the state. Exposure to these pollutants can cause adverse health impacts. For example, nitrates can contaminate drinking water and pose a particular threat to fetuses and young babies. Air pollution from CAFOs is also “strongly correlated” with infant mortality.

Federal law prohibits agencies, like DEQ, from taking actions (like issuing permits) that have discriminatory impacts, and research shows that the clustering of hog operations in eastern North Carolina disproportionately burdens communities of color. This influx of poultry into that same area invites and requires scrutiny from the Agency to ensure that poultry is not compounding the discriminatory impacts of hog pollution. Until DEQ takes cumulative impacts of pollution from hogs, poultry, and other sources into account, it cannot comply with this important federal law. DEQ must finalize a robust Environmental Justice tool and use it in decision-making.

5 years is too long for communities to wait

Typically, the General Permit has a 5-year term, meaning it is only every 5 years that the Agency examines and considers updating the terms. However, the increase in intensity and frequency of extreme storms, especially in North Carolina is getting worse, and urgent action is necessary to protect people and the environment. In the last 3 years, eastern North Carolina has been hit with two 1,000-year storms in the form of major hurricanes.

In addition, in this General Permit, for the first time DEQ is requiring that operators of lagoons in the 100-year floodplain (an area especially prone to flooding and problems during major storms) monitor groundwater. If DEQ learns that there is widespread leakage from the lagoons, it ought to take that into account as soon as possible rather than wait 5 years from now to update the permit. What’s more, with rapid technological development, DEQ should encourage and require updates sooner than the 5 year term.

Finally, this permit simply is not protective of community health, nor is it an instrument for environmental justice. No community should have to wait for clean air or clean water. No community should have to wait for the place they call home to be safe.

This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.