Conditions were optimal for an overflight on a bright, sunny November day in New Bern, a riverfront city that was North Carolina’s first state capital and the birthplace of Pepsi. Larry Baldwin and Rick Dover from the Riverkeeper Alliance, an international non-profit focused on clean drinking water, sat next a small Cessna aircraft, discussing their flight plans before taking off.
Baldwin’s mission was to fly over eastern North Carolina—host to an increasing number of industrial-scale hog and poultry barns, often crowded right next to one another, to collect evidence of the waste being discharged into nearby creeks and waterways, which could threaten neighboring communities with air and water contamination.
Baldwin and his Riverkeeper colleagues across the state have been conducting airborne sorties in chartered private planes for years to document hog or poultry waste leaking into watersheds. Baldwin would snap pictures in order to supplement ongoing investigations into livestock operators he suspected of illegally contaminating water sources with waste from open pits full of hog urine and feces.
“These Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, are spread over large areas, mostly in rural North Carolina, and it’s not easy to discover a violation from the road,” Baldwin said. “That is why we have to get into these small planes to see from above if a swine or poultry facility is committing a violation.”
Baldwin said that flight records are the best way of obtaining evidence of violations by CAFO operators and possible illegal waste management practices. Also, flights can be used to monitor the growing proliferation of large-scale hog- and poultry operations in areas with low-income people of color.
“The most typical pollutants found in air surrounding CAFOs are ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and particulate matter,” according to a report from the National Association of Local Boards of Health, “all of which have varying human health risks.”
A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences attributed 95 premature deaths annually in North Carolina’s Sampson County, and 83 such deaths in its Duplin County, to the fine particulate air pollution caused, in part, by ammonia emissions from hog operations. According to Duke University research, hog farms are particularly problematic in minority neighborhoods. These communities face a variety of health problems, including anemia and infant deaths, kidney disease, and septicemia.
Civil rights activists have pointed out for years long-standing environmental problems associated with the continued use of lagoon and sprayfield system, an outdated waste management method in which untreated urine and feces are stored and periodically sprayed onto nearby farms as fertilizer.
Unregulated Turkey and Chicken Operations Add to Contamination
The rapidly growing poultry industry, which is largely unknown and unregulated, is adding to the problem. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality does not even have information on the location or waste disposal practices of these industrial-scale chicken and turkey barns.
Commercial poultry farms produce more waste laden with nitrogen and phosphorus than the state’s massive commercial hog farms but need no operating permits, face no requirement to submit waste management plans to the DEQ and can only be inspected if someone in the community complains about their operations.
Nutrient pollution from the over-application of nitrogen and phosphorus in animal manure and chemical fertilizers is considered one of the country’s most widespread and costly environmental problems, causing algae blooms that kill fish, harm aquatic habitats and sicken humans with elevated toxin concentrations and bacterial growth.
Communities are left to manage their own affairs due to the absence of enforcement action and regulatory controls. Waterkeepers try to fill in the gaps by monitoring water quality and pollution from CAFOs.
“We combine aerial monitoring with on-the-ground investigation including testing ground water to assess if there are elevated levels of nutrients or harmful bacteria in the water body near the suspected hog or chicken facility,” Baldwin explained. The DEQ is notified if there are elevated levels of pollution.
Baldwin said that the state regulator failed to take any action against violators despite evidence of illegal water discharge based on extensive water testing. “The DEQ does not have the resources to undertake independent investigation to detect a violation nor would they admit our findings because it’s done by a third party,” he said.
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Josh Kastrinsky, a DEQ public information officer, responded that the department “investigates complaints involving animal feeding operations to ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations for the protection of the environment and public health.”
Kastrinsky said the department’s Division of Water Resources “may consider third party evidence as a part of their investigation but could not proceed with an enforcement action based only on that data without verification by inspectors.” The Division of Water Resources, he said, investigates complaints alleging immediate threats to the environment or human safety or health within 24 hours. It conducts site visits within five days for other complaints.
The Waterkeepers inform the public about environmental health and public health risks that CAFOs pose. “Hopefully, this will lead to increased public pressure that can get the state to do the right thing,” Baldwin said.
Since years, environmental groups have joined forces with communities near poultry and swine operations to demand that policymakers create a better waste management program than the outdated lagoon or sprayfield systems currently in place.
Instead, the Farm Act of 2021 was passed by the North Carolina state legislature last July. This requires the state regulator in North Carolina to issue a general permit within a calendar year to allow interested swine operations the ability to capture methane gas from hog waste and convert it into biogas.
The DEQ has already issued four biogas permits for hog facilities in eastern North Carolina under the Align Renewable Natural Gas (or Align RNG) program. This program, worth $500 million, is a joint venture between Smithfield Foods Inc. and Dominion Energy Inc., which began in 2018.
Two North Carolina civil right groups filed a complaint to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding the approval of the state’s plan to produce biogas despite concerns that it will increase air and water polluting.
DEQ must complete the general permitting process by July 1, 2022.
Source: Inside Climate News