What's Poo Got to Do With It?

Communities living near hog farms are in harm's way, and the permit the legislature wants to delay includes long-overdue protections from this dangerous air and water pollution.
Manure and other factory farm waste being sprayed into the air and onto fields in a community in eastern North Carolina
Credit: Waterkeeper Alliance

UPDATE September 12, 2019:

In an underhanded move while many the majority legislators were out of the chamber, on September 11, 2019 the North Carolina General Assembly voted to override the Governor's veto of a bad-budget. If the Senate approves this measure, the budget will delay new safeguards at industrial hog operations in the state.  

Original blog (June 27, 2019):

This week, the North Carolina legislature is sending a budget to the Governor for approval or veto. On its face, that does not seem like it should impact the state’s 2,000+ industrial hog production facilities, the 60-million-plus pounds swine manure they produce every day (the vast majority of which operators store in open cesspools and spray into the air and onto land), or communities that live nearby. But if industry and the North Carolina legislature get their way, the budget will become a vehicle for delaying new rules that would provide some, albeit overdue and insufficient, protections for communities and the environment.

Typically, these facilities use a lagoon and sprayfield system. They dump their hog manure into huge, open, festering cesspools and then, instead of treating it, they spray it into the air onto fields. Lagoons in the floodplains can overflow in severe storms causing floods of feces to run into nearby rivers or pollute waterways that people use for drinking water. Spraying it in the air causes an overpowering odor, causes damage to air and water, and is causing nearby residents to become ill. A study by Duke University found that living close to a large-scale hog farm increased rates of infant mortality and even adults have higher death rates

This spring, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released its final General Permit for industrial swine operations (which governs waste handling at 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. The permit is slated to take effect on October first of this year, but if industry and the legislature get their way, communities will have to wait another year, until 2020, for the new (albeit inadequate) safeguards.

As I’ve written, 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 still sanctions the Sprayfield-Lagoon system and woefully inadequate to protect communities and the environment. It also fails to hold the multi-national corporations that dominate the industry accountable for pollution or health harms. 

Since this permit fails to protect communities and water, why then, not delay its implementation? The answer is tragically simple: the existing permit is even worse.

Currently, 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. But, for example, the old permit does not require any monitoring at the lagoons to see if they are leaking, even when they are in the most environmentally vulnerable areas.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, 3 million North Carolinians rely on groundwater for their primary drinking water source. Over many decades studies have shown significant contamination of groundwater near hog facilities in eastern North Carolina. The risk is especially bad in the coastal plain, where “the water table is near the surface,” and “[e]ven without spills, ammonia and nitrates may seep into groundwater.” The new permit would require, for the first time, that many operators monitor the groundwater near their lagoons. This is just one example of a long-overdue protection that the budget threatens.

The new permit would take a step in the right direction, and North Carolinians deserve that and much, much more. Communities living near hog farms are in harm's way, and the permit the legislature wants to delay includes long-overdue protections from this dangerous air and water pollution.