A civil rights settlement forced DEQ to sample Duplin County waterways for pollution. The hard part is pinpointing the source.
Stocking Head Creek was up, licking the bottom of the bridge on NC Highway 50. An inch and a quarter of rain had fallen in the past two days, and the high water, the color of umber, scaled tree trunks and inundated swamps. At the storm’s peak, the creek must have reached the road, because the grass along the shoulder was combed over and had yet to stand back up.
Stocking Head Creek originates from beneath the ground somewhere in a forest that flanks Cool Spring Road just south of Kenansville in Duplin County. It ends about 14 miles away, where it converges with Muddy Creek and dumps into Northeast Cape Fear near Chinquapin.
On its journey, Stocking Head Creek must pass through a gridlock of industrialized hog, poultry and cattle farms, and on this Sunday afternoon, a slight odor of manure off-gassed from the creek’s surface. These farms, many of their neighbors say, not only stink and attract flies and buzzards, but also are discharging pollution into waterways within the 4,893-acre watershed.
Until this year, the state had not conducted targeted, monthly surface water monitoring of the Stocking Head Creek watershed. But as part of a federal civil rights settlement  between the NC Department of Environmental Quality and several community and environmental groups — the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, and Waterkeeper Alliance — the state is now required to specifically study the effects of industrialized livestock farms on water quality in this area.
The first round of results have been released , although DEQ cautioned that more tests and analysis, including long-term monitoring, are necessary to determine pollution sources. Nonetheless, initial results show that these waters, classified as “C,” because they should support swimming, fishing and wading, contain elevated levels of several contaminants: fecal coliform bacteria, nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia.
DEQ has not directly linked these elevated levels of bacteria, contaminants and nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) to animal waste facilities, said DEQ spokesperson Bridget Munger. The next phase of the study is to monitor water quality to try to pinpoint the sources of contamination.
Nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia are found not only in animal waste, such as that sprayed onto farm fields, but also commercial fertilizers. There are no state or federal numeric standards for nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia in surface water.
There are such standards, though, for fecal coliform. A bacteria found in the gut of human and animals, it indicates that other bacteria are present in the water. Concentrations of fecal coliform at Graham Dobson Road and Dobson Chapel Road sampling sites ranged from 6,000 to 14,000 colony forming units (CFUs). Coincidentally, dozens of livestock farms are in this neighborhood.
Smithfield Foods did not return a request for comment on the results.
State surface water quality standards limit fecal coliform to 200 CFUs based upon at least five consecutive samples examined during any 30-day period. Nor can these concentrations exceed 400 CFUs in more than 20 percent of the samples examined during that time. In the entire watershed, only five of 75 samples reported levels lower than 200 CFUs, the state maximum.
Even though the sampling size is currently too small to use the “five-in-30” requirement, DEQ’s Munger told Policy Watch that these initial findings support a 2016 fecal coliform study that met that threshold. Those results prompted state officials to place Stocking Head Creek on the draft 2018 impaired waters list for fecal coliform.
Required under the Clean Water Act, this list is known as the 303(d). Waters on the 303(d) are then subject to “total maximum daily loads” of the contaminants in question in order to improve water quality. The EPA must approve the state’s recommendations.
“The finding that the state made is consistent with our expectations,” said Will Hendrick, attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance. The group conducted independent sampling at the same sites as the state’s, as well as during the same months of April through October. Their findings, as did a previous UNC Wilmington study,  supported the state’s initial reports.
The Waterkeeper Alliance data showed ranges of fecal coliform from 82 to 29,000 CFUs; only seven samples had concentrations lower than 200 CFUs.
Bacteria also threatens the health of people who swim, fish or wade in Stocking Head Creek or other contaminated waterways in the watershed. Ammonia can kill aquatic life. Nitrogen and phosphorus can lead to rampant algae growth and choke waterways.
“It’s important to note there are not upstream discharges from wastewater treatment plants,” Hendrick said. As part of the EPA-approved civil rights settlement, Waterkeeper Alliance had requested that the state sample in this particular watershed to dispel industry contentions that municipal wastewater was the culprit.
The livestock industry, particularly hogs and poultry, routinely claims it doesn’t discharge into surface water. But there are many ways that hog waste can enter rivers, creeks and streams. Runoff from the sprayfields — where manure and urine is applied for fertilizer — can carry nitrogen and phosphorus offsite. Dike walls of the waste lagoons can erode.
As the lagoons’ clay liners age — they’re designed to last only 20 years — they can leach into the groundwater. (Nearly every lagoon liner in North Carolina is approaching its maximum life expectancy.) From there, the water can travel beneath the ground into surface water. The high water table and sandy soils typical in the coastal plain can expedite this runoff and leaching.
Nonetheless, the draft general permits for these operations, open for public comment through Dec. 21,  continue to treat most hog and poultry farms as “non-discharge.”
“The purpose of this study is to combat this misperception,” Hendrick said. “It validates what the community has been saying for years.”
On a sultry afternoon last summer, about a dozen neighbors of Smithfield’s enormous hog operations met at the REACH offices in Duplin County to try to strike a détente with farmers. Smithfield and its advocates in the legislature, including Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Duplin County, claimed that the plaintiffs and lawyers in the nuisance litigation were only after money.
While Smithfield lost in the courts, the company won in the legislature, which passed another more restrictive version of the Right to Farm Act, all but outlawing nuisance lawsuits against the hog industry. The state agriculture department co-sponsored a “pro-farm” rally. Some lawmakers could barely hide their contempt for neighbors who spoke before legislative committees about their plight.
“We’re trying to clarify who we are and where we stand,” said Naeema Muhammad of the NC Environmental Justice Network. “Smithfield is pitting neighbor versus neighbor. We’ve never said the contract growers were our enemies. But our property has been devalued. The farms have made us sick. We don’t want to close farms down. Just clean them up.”
Only a few farmers — and several sheriff’s deputies — showed up at the event. The farmers and their advocates left, still skeptical of the neighbors. “There are no records that show the hog farms” are at fault,” said one woman, who said she supported the farmers. “Look at the statistics. Where is the information?”
Information — and hopefully justice — is what the Title VI civil rights complaint was designed to achieve. The crux of the complaint is that industrialized hog operations disproportionately harm low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Although as DEQ noted, the source of the contamination has not been tracked, there is no question it exists. And it’s coming from somewhere.
According to a UNC-Wilmington study, there are 40 industrialized hog farms permitted to grow 94,068 swine in the Stocking Head Creek watershed. Add another 1.3 million chickens and turkeys, plus cattle, and the list of likely suspects isn’t difficult to discern.
Surface water monitoring is the first step toward accountability. “The surface water monitoring was fought for and won by the Title VI complainants,” said Elizabeth Haddix, a lead attorney working on behalf of residents in filing the complaint. “It’s really critical information for the public to have.”
The Title VI civil rights complaint influenced the language in the draft swine permit, which, Haddix said, “has a record number of revisions,” compared to 2014, when it was last updated. “But it’s still insufficient to protect these communities in areas with high concentrations of hog farms.”
The neighbors have also advocated for groundwater monitoring downgradient of the lagoons, especially given the natural degradation of the clay liners.
And these pollutants aren’t confined to the Stocking Head Creek watershed. They enter the Northeast Cape Fear River, which feeds the Cape Fear River, the drinking water source for much of Wilmington. The Cape Fear is already polluted with GenX and perfluorinated compounds; adding to the pollutant load increases the cost of water treatment.
Only with the cooperation of the livestock industry — or state enforcement or continued court losses — can Stocking Head Creek be cleaned up, and the mending of a community begin. “We want some kind of dialogue,” said Devon Hall of REACH. “It’s not an easy fix.”