2,000 words, 10-minute read
DEQ proposes stronger regulations, but waste lagoon and sprayfield system would remain status quo
Jed Arena stands in his backyard, placing most of his weight on one bent leg. A former hog farm worker for Carroll’s, Smithfield and smaller operations, he’s been fighting off a bacterial infection in his spine. About 10 years ago, well before his recent diagnosis of osteomyelitis, he contracted MRSA, a drug-resistant staph infection, that landed him in the hospital for nearly a week.
But his health problems, which may or may not stem from his 17 years in the hog industry, are farther down his list of immediate complaints.
“You can see it from here,” Arena says, pointing across a field. About a half-mile away from his property, Murphy-Brown owns and operates the 9,542-head New Colony Sow Farm in rural Tyrrell County.
“Buzzards, odor,” Arena says, listing complaints that sound familiar to those lodged in federal hog nuisance lawsuits. “And flies. I killed 20 on my TV screen. And my water turns the kitchen sink black.”
It’s too late for Arena to sue Smithfield for nuisance. Earlier this year, the legislature specifically insulated hog farms  from these lawsuits by narrowing the range of circumstances under which neighbors could sue. The New Colony Sow Farm would escape any such litigation, in part because it has not been cited or penalized by state or federal environmental officials within the last three years.
“Smithfield has no regard for the community,” Arena said.
That an enormous sow farm with four open-pit waste lagoons came to be situated near swamp land is testament to the laxity of North Carolina laws. Counties have practically no zoning authority over swine farms in agricultural areas. Lacking state requirements for groundwater monitoring, as well as thorough inspections, there is little recourse for people who are concerned about the farms’ impact on the environment and public health.
One route, though, is by commenting on the industry’s waste management general permits,  required by the state Department of Environmental Quality for nearly every hog farm in North Carolina. (A few farms have individual permits because they discharge into surface waters of the state. Those NPDES permits regulate the amount of pollutants the farms can discharge. General permits assume there is no discharge.)
General permits must be updated every five years. And every five years there is conflict among farmers, trade groups, environmental and social justice advocates, and state regulators about proposed requirements that would hold the industry to account.
On Tuesday night in Sampson County, more than 150 people attended a public hearing on the draft permit , which in its final form goes into effect Oct. 1, 2019. Although the assumption is that the antiquated open-air waste lagoons and spray field systems will remain the status quo, state regulators have beefed up some provisions.
Among them are groundwater monitoring, rain breakers — systems that automatically shut off spray field systems when it rains — daily documentation of hog deaths and disposal methods, as well as restrictions, depending on the wind, on the spraying of the hog waste. The department could also conduct surprise inspections rather than giving farms advance notice, a requirement sought by environmental justice groups. Accurately completing an odor checklist would also be a condition of the permit.
Farmers and industry representatives from Smithfield, Prestage, the Pork Council and the Farm Bureau opposed additional regulations. “We’re already well regulated,” said Chad Herring, executive director of NC Farm Families,  the front group for Smithfield and the hog industry in general. He characterized many of the proposals, such as increased documentation — much of which is off-limits to the public without state intervention — as “onerous.”
There are a few provisions that could be problematic. For example, farmers would have to stop spraying waste within four hours of the National Weather Service issuing a flash flood watch for the county where the operation is located. With advanced forecasting, those alerts can be issued days before the threat materializes, and farmers argue that this requirement would reduce the amount of time they could lower waste levels in the lagoons via spraying.
Fourth-generation farmer Marlowe Vaughn  called some of the proposed requirements “downright insulting.”
“There’s no acknowledgment of how we’ve improved and how we’ve evolved,” she said. “It’s the same conversation. People who want to tell us what to do know the least about farming.”
One of the industry’s main talking points is that the regulations to which it is subject are the most stringent in the nation. “The policies are already enforced,” said farmer Ada Bailey. “Just because it smells doesn’t mean it’s hurting people or the environment. Some farmers are out of compliance, but don’t treat all farmers based on them.”
However, because states have different geologic features and legal histories, that claim is difficult to prove. But even if it is true, the state’s inspection and enforcement of these laws is lax.
State regulators, either with DEQ or the Department of Agriculture, inspect the farms annually. However, the operators are given a heads-up, ostensibly to organize their records. But this also gives wayward farms the opportunity to cover their tracks.
Policy Watch reviewed more than 100 annual compliance inspection reports for more than 30 farms and found that the visits lasted from 30 to 90 minutes. If the farms were automobiles, the total inspection time would be equivalent to between one and three oil changes. If a farm had been out of compliance, a follow-up inspection could last as long as two hours.
However, according to a transcript from the third hog nuisance trial involving Greenwood Farms, Christine Lawson, program director of DEQ’s Animal Feeding Operations, testified that there is little if any independent verification or comparison of a farm’s year-to-year records. In the case of Greenwood, trial transcripts from July show that spray and pumping records had been falsified, but the inspector didn’t detect the discrepancies.
“How often do you think stuff like this happens?” asked plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Kaeske.
“I don’t think it’s common,” Lawson replied.
“Well is there a way for you to know?”
“The way that we know is we continue to do our compliance inspections.”
Another point made by industry and echoed by many state lawmakers and DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, is that wastewater treatment plants are responsible illegally discharging millions of gallons of sewage (some treated, some raw) into waterways. This far exceeds the amount discharged by lagoons.
Environmental data shows that this statement is true, but needs context.
Of the 1,640 enforcement actions taken by the Division of Water Resources from October 2014 to September 2018, the majority have been levied against wastewater treatment plants, both public and private. Seventy-seven hog farms have been penalized, although several of them are repeat offenders, for a total of $300,460 in fines. That includes a $64,000 penalty assessed against the chronically deficient Lanier Farms. Over Labor Day weekend 2017, the farm discharged more than a million gallons of wastewater into the Trent River. Smithfield, facing Clean Water Act violations, closed the farm.
Wastewater treatment plants are subject to stricter federal discharge rules and monitoring requirements, which increases the likelihood that their problems will be detected. And in many cases, the failing systems are on the state’s “unit assistance list,” because they are financially insolvent. These systems are often in small towns (or even mobile home parks), where there is not enough money for improvements.
For example, Fair Bluff has a smaller population than most hog farms — just 932 people. Its wastewater system flooded during Hurricane Florence. The town’s water and sewer system generates about $324,000 in revenue each year, according to state records.
By comparison, the WH Group, the Chinese company that owns Smithfield, recorded operating profits of $867 million — in just the first half of 2018.
Like many neighbors of industrialized hog operations, Jed Arena is among the poorest of the poor. Since 2010, he has lived on this small plot of family land that he inherited from his mother. He heats his small, white house with wood.
Seventy-nine percent of Tyrrell County lies within the 100-year flood plain. Although technically Arena lives just outside of the official boundary, the water table is so high that the drinking water wells are shallow. Arena said his is just 70 to 80 feet deep. Considering his black-stained sink, he could benefit not only from well testing but groundwater monitoring. The county can test his well for contaminants, cheaply or at no cost.
He is disabled and survives on less than $17,000 a year, so he can’t afford the hundreds of dollars it would cost for a comprehensive private well test. Nor can he afford to buy pallets of bottled water. But he resists inviting the county to conduct the sampling.
“I don’t trust the government,” he says. “Plus, I want them to test for everything.”
The disproportionate impact on low-income households and communities of color (Arena is white), prompted several social justice advocates at Tuesday’s meeting to speak for stronger, not weaker language in the draft permits.
They called for several terms of a federal civil rights settlement  between DEQ and environmental justice and community groups to be included in the permit. That includes greater transparency and the implementation of an environmental justice screening tool, due by April 2019.
(The settlement also requires DEQ to maintain and update monthly an online list of complaints for which a determination of violation has been made. The agency also must publish an annual report with detailed data about the number of complaints, their investigations and resolutions. In addition, DEQ will conduct temporary, and depending on the data, potentially permanent, ambient air quality monitoring in and around Duplin County. The agency will monitor surface water near the farms for at least one year.)
Don Cavellini of the NC Environmental Justice Network, one of the parties to the settlement, asked state regulators to require groundwater monitoring downhill from any farm that remains in the 100-year flood plain.
As part of a state buyout program , more than 40 farms in these flood plains have been purchased and converted to conservation easements. Four hog farms in Tyrrell County have already accepted state buyouts and closed. Only one farm remains in the county, according to state records: New Colony.
Flood maps show that New Colony is on a peninsula of comparatively higher ground, surrounded by land the consistency of soup that is just four feet above sea level. New Colony is on North Phelps Road, a hardpan of sand that leads to state game lands. On one side of North Phelps is a swamp, a forest and a channel. On the other side, lie fallow farm fields, full drainage ditches and the expanse of New Colony.
In the past week, the area has received about an inch of rain, and the ruts and the mud have reduced the narrow road in some spots to just one lane. It’s cold and dry, so the odor, while nauseating next to the farm, isn’t traveling far. No waste is being sprayed, in part because the ground and fields are wet.
The next warm day, though, Arena expects the odor and the flies to return. But these two acres have been in his family since 1953, and he plans to stay here. His father is buried on the property. Some day, his mother, who lives in Louisiana, will be buried there, as well. “I’ll be back there, too,” he says.
Swine Farm Violations, October 2014-September 2018
This table shows the penalty amounts levied against swine farms over the last permitting period. Bolded farms indicate multiple violations. Permit numbers that begin with the prefix “NC” indicate these farms operate under federal discharge permits, not general permits. General permits assume the farms don’t discharge into surface water. Source: DEQ civil enforcement database,  animal feeding operations database 
Swine Farm Violations.xlsx
|Farm owner||No. hogs permitted||No. lagoons||County||Address||City||Penalty 10/2014 to 9/2018 ($)|
|A McRae||7,040||1||Anson||3459 Dennis Rd||Wadesboro||213|
|Allen Norris||4,480||1||Bladen||458 Ccc Rd||Council||8,478|
|Douglas Bordeaux||3,672||1||Bladen||2690 Sweet Home Church Rd||Elizabethtown||3,063|
|Byron Melvin||7,040||2||Bladen||253 Berry Lewis Rd||Bladenboro||3,011 (multiple penalties)|
|J Norris||5,880||1||Bladen||604 Powell Rd||Clarkton||8,478|
|Ronald Hutchison||5,880||1||Bladen||3874 NC Hwy 87 E||Elizabethtown||6,025|
|Channing Gooden||6,060||1||Bladen||7275 Rosindale Rd||Council||12,583|
|Timothy Craig||4,400||1||Chatham||557 Alston Bridge Rd||Siler City||2,600|
|Gibson Stocks||7,344||2||Columbus||4223 Olddothan Rd||Tabor City||303|
|McLawhorn Livestock Farm Inc||3,926||4||Craven||5909 Hwy 17 S||New Bern||12,042 (multiple penalties)|
|Grace Knowles||1,196||1||Duplin||8097 S NC 41 Hwy||Wallace||303|
|Stan Bowles||7,320||3||Duplin||1552 Dobson Chapel Rd||Magnolia||5,615|
|Chris Turner (now Randy Kennedy)||1,196||2||Duplin||238 Kennedy Ln||Pink Hill||206|
|Sheila Graham||10,560||2||Duplin||389 Blackmore Rd||Warsaw||15,168 (multiple penalties)|
|Rodney Kornegay||2,448||1||Duplin||240 Popeye Rd||Mount Olive||206|
|Mark Davis||2,880||1||Duplin||Hwy 903||Magnolia||5187|
|Grace Knowles||2,448||1||Duplin||8141 S NC 41||Wallace||303|
|Andy Morrell||750||1||Duplin||316 Pink Hill Rd||Pink Hill||213|
|Renewable Transport LLC||1,400||2||Duplin||518 Eneas Lanier Rd||Chinquipin||296|
|Winfred Harrell||1,440||1||Duplin||2219 S NC 50||Rose Hill||206|
|Rufus Rouse||3,698||2||Duplin||1672-A Pasture Branch Rd||Beulaville||206|
|Rex Halso||2,424||2||Duplin||204 Old NC 24||Beulaville||2,074|
|Paul Dail||11,200||2||Duplin||Paul Ed Dail Rd||Kenansville||14,889|
|Charles Stokes||4,310||1||Greene||398 Tripp-Grimsley Rd||Ayden||8,816|
|Hazel Pridgen||7,200||1||Greene||2398 Hull Rd||Snow Hill||206|
|Elizabeth Dail||3,000||1||Greene||358 Dailtown Rd||Snow Hill||303|
|Richard Pridgen||720||2||Greene||3949 Hwy 258 S||Snow Hill||183|
|Lizzie Swine Farm LLC||12,326||3||Greene||1678 Vandiford Thomas Rd||Snow Hill||4,294|
|Bruce Humble||1,470||2||Guilford||6653 Smithwood Rd||Liberty||2,254|
|Dwight Youngblood||3,900||3||Johnston||2549 Wilsons Mills Rd||Smithfield||4,193|
|Faison Investments LLC||3,000||1||Johnston||6944 Harper House Rd||Newton Grove||6,130|
|Murphy-Brown LLC||6,338||2||Jones||244 Tonya Ln||Trenton||3,944|
|Murphy-Brown LLC||7,854||2||Jones||649-A Burney Town Rd||Kinston||2,122|
|Gregory Marshburn||4,000||1||Jones||259 Shiver Ln||Trenton||4,716|
|Douglas Lanier||7,450 (now closed)||2||Jones||522 Plum Nearly Ln||Trenton||64,072|
|Sherall Houston||2,448||1||Jones||9367 Hwy 41 W||Trenton||1,758|
|Donald Taylor||10,320||3||Jones||508 Ben Banks Rd||Trenton||1,703 (multiple violations)|
|Donald Howard||3,600||1||Lenior||4059 Vine Swamp Rd||Kinston||9,406|
|Craig Tyndall||3,520||1||Lenoir||559 Jonestown Rd||Pink Hill||4,727|
|Forrest Rouse||6,,000||2||Lenoir||811 Gabe Price Rd||Seven Springs||3,203|
|Fannie Rouse||600||2||Lenoir||5632 Liddell Rd||Seven Springs||183|
|Don Howard||3,600||1||Lenoir||4059 Vine Swamp Rd||Kinston||6,730 (multiple violations)|
|Williams Farms||950||2||Northampton||149 Woods Lane||Gaston||213|
|Morris Brinson||2,448||1||Onslow||1907 Kinston Hwy||Richlands||296|
|Chris Casteen||5,200||2||Onslow||1009 Gregory Fork Rd||Richlands||296|
|Greenwood Livestock LLC||7,920||3||Pender||1067 Raccoon Rd||Willard||5931|
|James Barnhill||3,672||2||Pender||3968 Slocum Rd||Atkinson||6,066|
|Terry Allen||0||3||Person||6155 Burlington Rd||Roxboro||3,084|
|Franklin Poindexter||0||2||Person||990 Young Chapel Church Rd||Roxboro||4,760|
|Ephraigm Smith||4,896||2||Pitt||7267 NC 43 S||Greenville||3,676 (multiple violations)|
|GIS of NC||2,400||1||Pitt||4551 NC Hwy 30||Stokes||3,325|
|John Lewis||830||4||Pitt||4376 Lewis Store Rd||Walstonburg||952|
|Jack Allen||4,800||1||Pitt||2832 Hwy 102 E||Ayden||296|
|Wayne Buck (now C & R Livestock)||4,800||1||Pitt||3236 Ervin Buck Rd||Greenville||3074|
|John Ward||6,500||1||Robeson||387 Robert Bessie Rd||Lumberton||6,898|
|Garland McCollum||0||2||Rockingham||210 Massey Creek Rd||Madison||573|
|Bryan McLamb||2,480||1||Sampson||2525 Plain View Hwy||Dunn||206|
|Jerry Trent Barnes (now Darden Family)||3,520||1||Sampson||4940 Highhouse Rd||Roseboro||206|
|Ben Warwick||2,940||1||Sampson||1305 Honrine Rd||Clinton||5,851|
|Joe Butler||5,760||1||Sampson||5331 Five Bridge Rd||Clinton||1,782|
|Michael Merritt||2,940||1||Sampson||3170 Waycross Rd||Magnolia||206|
|Franklin Lindsay||4,880||1||Sampson||1000 Linsday Farm Ln||Clinton||14,177 (multiple violations)|
|Ryan Butler||5,600||2||Sampson||3690 The Ave||Clinton||1,782|
|Ken Spell (now Wayne Spell)||3,552||1||Sampson||484 Horse Pasture Rd||Salemburg||296|
|Ray Pate||2,899||3||Sampson||2210 Hunter Rd||Clinton||5,119|
|Seacoast Group LLC||1,100||2||Sampson||1215 Josh Sessoms||Roseboro||3,989|
|G & C Swine Farm||2,480||1||Sampson||2092 Casey Rd||Faison||483|
|Ken Spell||6,400||2||Sampson||Sr 1301 683 Marion Amos Rd||Clinton||206|
|Larry Martin||1,224||1||Wayne||1224 Mills Loop Rd||Mount Olive||213|
|Bill Ellis (since sold to Nash Pigg Rentals)||898||2||Wilson||7372 Rock Ridge Rd||Sims||3,132|
|Bill Ellis (since sold to Nash Pigg Rentals)||425||1||Wilson||7030 Boykin Rd||Sims||8,154|