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Swine farmers, hog industry turns out in force to oppose revisions to draft permits

 

[1]
New Colony Sow Farm, which houses more than 9.500 animals in Tyrrell County. It is the last industrialized hog farm left in the county, according to state records. Sow farms not only produce urine and feces, but also placentas, since the animals give birth in the barns. That material falls through the slats in the floor and flows into an open-pit waste lagoon. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

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 [2] 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, [3] 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.

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On Tuesday night in Sampson County, more than 150 people attended a public hearing on the draft permit [5], 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, [6] 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 [7] 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.”

People who want to tell us what to do know the least about farming Click to Tweet

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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. 

My water turns the kitchen sink black Click to Tweet

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.

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[8]
New Colony Sow Farm is on North Phelps Road, just south of Columbia. The map shows the Scuppernong River to the north, as well as game lands. The area is swampy, although the farm does not lie in a 100-year flood plain, according to recent maps.

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 [9] 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 [10], 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, [11] animal feeding operations database [12]

 

 

Swine Farm Violations.xlsx

Farm ownerNo. hogs permittedNo. lagoonsCountyAddressCityPenalty 10/2014 to 9/2018 ($)
A McRae7,0401Anson3459 Dennis RdWadesboro213
Allen Norris4,4801Bladen458 Ccc RdCouncil8,478
Douglas Bordeaux3,6721Bladen2690 Sweet Home Church RdElizabethtown3,063
Byron Melvin7,0402Bladen253 Berry Lewis RdBladenboro3,011 (multiple penalties)
J Norris5,8801Bladen604 Powell RdClarkton8,478
Ronald Hutchison5,8801Bladen3874 NC Hwy 87 EElizabethtown6,025
Channing Gooden6,0601Bladen7275 Rosindale RdCouncil12,583
Timothy Craig4,4001Chatham557 Alston Bridge RdSiler City2,600
Gibson Stocks7,3442Columbus4223 Olddothan RdTabor City303
McLawhorn Livestock Farm Inc3,9264Craven5909 Hwy 17 SNew Bern12,042 (multiple penalties)
Grace Knowles1,1961Duplin8097 S NC 41 HwyWallace303
Stan Bowles7,3203Duplin1552 Dobson Chapel RdMagnolia5,615
Chris Turner (now Randy Kennedy)1,1962Duplin238 Kennedy LnPink Hill206
Sheila Graham10,5602Duplin389 Blackmore RdWarsaw15,168 (multiple penalties)
Rodney Kornegay2,4481Duplin240 Popeye RdMount Olive206
Mark Davis2,8801DuplinHwy 903Magnolia5187
Grace Knowles2,4481Duplin8141 S NC 41Wallace303
Andy Morrell7501Duplin316 Pink Hill RdPink Hill213
Renewable Transport LLC1,4002Duplin518 Eneas Lanier RdChinquipin296
Winfred Harrell1,4401Duplin2219 S NC 50Rose Hill206
Rufus Rouse3,6982Duplin1672-A Pasture Branch RdBeulaville206
Rex Halso2,4242Duplin204 Old NC 24Beulaville2,074
Paul Dail11,2002DuplinPaul Ed Dail RdKenansville14,889
Charles Stokes4,3101Greene398 Tripp-Grimsley RdAyden8,816
Hazel Pridgen7,2001Greene2398 Hull RdSnow Hill206
Elizabeth Dail3,0001Greene358 Dailtown RdSnow Hill303
Richard Pridgen7202Greene3949 Hwy 258 SSnow Hill183
Lizzie Swine Farm LLC12,3263Greene1678 Vandiford Thomas RdSnow Hill4,294
Bruce Humble1,4702Guilford6653 Smithwood RdLiberty2,254
Dwight Youngblood3,9003Johnston2549 Wilsons Mills RdSmithfield4,193
Faison Investments LLC3,0001Johnston6944 Harper House RdNewton Grove6,130
Murphy-Brown LLC6,3382Jones244 Tonya LnTrenton3,944
Murphy-Brown LLC7,8542Jones649-A Burney Town RdKinston2,122
Gregory Marshburn4,0001Jones259 Shiver LnTrenton4,716
Douglas Lanier7,450 (now closed)2Jones522 Plum Nearly LnTrenton64,072
Sherall Houston2,4481Jones9367 Hwy 41 WTrenton1,758
Donald Taylor10,3203Jones508 Ben Banks RdTrenton1,703 (multiple violations)
Donald Howard3,6001Lenior4059 Vine Swamp RdKinston9,406
Craig Tyndall3,5201Lenoir559 Jonestown RdPink Hill4,727
Forrest Rouse6,,0002Lenoir811 Gabe Price RdSeven Springs3,203
Fannie Rouse6002Lenoir5632 Liddell RdSeven Springs183
Don Howard3,6001Lenoir4059 Vine Swamp RdKinston6,730 (multiple violations)
Williams Farms9502Northampton149 Woods LaneGaston213
Morris Brinson2,4481Onslow1907 Kinston HwyRichlands296
Chris Casteen5,2002Onslow1009 Gregory Fork RdRichlands296
Greenwood Livestock LLC7,9203Pender1067 Raccoon RdWillard5931
James Barnhill3,6722Pender3968 Slocum RdAtkinson6,066
Terry Allen03Person6155 Burlington RdRoxboro3,084
Franklin Poindexter02Person990 Young Chapel Church RdRoxboro4,760
Ephraigm Smith4,8962Pitt7267 NC 43 SGreenville3,676 (multiple violations)
GIS of NC2,4001Pitt4551 NC Hwy 30Stokes3,325
John Lewis8304Pitt4376 Lewis Store RdWalstonburg952
Jack Allen4,8001Pitt2832 Hwy 102 EAyden296
Wayne Buck (now C & R Livestock)4,8001Pitt3236 Ervin Buck RdGreenville3074
John Ward6,5001Robeson387 Robert Bessie RdLumberton6,898
Garland McCollum02Rockingham210 Massey Creek RdMadison573
Bryan McLamb2,4801Sampson2525 Plain View HwyDunn206
Jerry Trent Barnes (now Darden Family)3,5201Sampson4940 Highhouse RdRoseboro206
Ben Warwick2,9401Sampson1305 Honrine RdClinton5,851
Joe Butler5,7601Sampson5331 Five Bridge RdClinton1,782
Michael Merritt2,9401Sampson3170 Waycross RdMagnolia206
Franklin Lindsay4,8801Sampson1000 Linsday Farm LnClinton14,177 (multiple violations)
Ryan Butler5,6002Sampson3690 The AveClinton1,782
Ken Spell (now Wayne Spell)3,5521Sampson484 Horse Pasture RdSalemburg296
Ray Pate2,8993Sampson2210 Hunter RdClinton5,119
Seacoast Group LLC1,1002Sampson1215 Josh SessomsRoseboro3,989
G & C Swine Farm2,4801Sampson2092 Casey RdFaison483
Ken Spell6,4002SampsonSr 1301 683 Marion Amos RdClinton206
Larry Martin1,2241Wayne1224 Mills Loop RdMount Olive213
Bill Ellis (since sold to Nash Pigg Rentals)8982Wilson7372 Rock Ridge RdSims3,132
Bill Ellis (since sold to Nash Pigg Rentals)4251Wilson7030 Boykin RdSims8,154