WASHINGTON — U.S. regulators are currently looking into whether the extraordinarily high density of industrial hog farms in eastern North Carolina is having a disproportionate negative impact on minority communities, as alleged in a new complaint.
In the coming days, the Environmental Protection Agency will make an initial decision on whether the filing satisfies basic administrative requirements. If EPA officials find that it does, the agency will then begin a full investigation into whether the North Carolina permitting process is in effect discriminating against minority communities in the state’s eastern regions.
While local frustration around this situation is longstanding, the complaint marks the first time that the issue has been appealed to the federal government on civil rights grounds.
“I was at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the early 1990s, and people from eastern North Carolina were telling us these swine facilities were destroying their lives – that they could no longer sit on their porch and that this was a civil rights issue,” Marianne Engelman Lado, the lead attorney on the complaint, told MintPress News.
“At the time, though, we didn’t know what to do about it. Now, they’ve been dealing with this on a daily issue for decades, and felt no one was listening.”
The hog industry boomed in the region in the early 1990s. Since then, local communities have complained of atrocious health and quality-of-life impacts that they and public health experts allege stem from large-scale hog farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
In particular, the problem is how these CAFOs deal with the massive levels of waste the animals produce on a daily basis. Not only is this manure typically held in large, open-air pools, but it is then sprayed onto agricultural fields in the region at regular intervals.
“The density of large hog farms in this part of the state is truly extraordinary. It is far more dense than any other part of the country – nine out of ten of the most densely packed counties for hog farms are in eastern North Carolina,” Lado, a managing attorney for Earthjustice, a legal advocacy group, said.
“Some people tell us they have 10 hog CAFOs within a mile of their home, with 5,000 hogs in each facility. So that’s like having 10 towns of 15,000 people each right next to your home – each of which has an open cesspool for all of the waste produced. The smell is incredible.”
9.5 million hogs
North Carolina regulators currently allow some 2,000 CAFOs, housing around 9.5 million hogs, in the state, according to the complaint. Most of these are in the state’s coastal plain, where some counties are home to 43 hogs to every person. While the region also houses a very large poultry industry, it’s important to note that these figures only represent hog CAFOs.
The complaint references studies that have long pointed to significant health impacts for those living near these CAFOs. In addition to general well-being and quality of life, these impacts include trouble sleeping and a host of ailments associated with airborne pollutants, such as asthma and bronchitis. (Animal manure produces tremendous amounts of airborne ammonia, among other compounds.) Many say they were forced to stop drinking groundwater years ago, and no longer feel comfortable even hanging their laundry outside to dry.
Local communities have complained about these issues for decades, but say they’ve received little substantive response. They’ve also had a sneaking suspicion that part of this lack of response has been because these complaints were coming particularly from communities of color.
“Since the early 1990s, African American, Latino, and Native American community members have sought greater protection from the adverse impacts of industrial swine production, but time and again their requests have been unanswered,” the complaint states.
“Complainants believe that but for the race and national origin of the impacted population, which is disproportionately African American, Latino, and Native American, [North Carolina’s environmental regulators] would be more responsive to the crying need for stronger permit conditions.”
Officials with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) declined to comment for this story.
The new complaint to the EPA, then, rests on requirements across the federal government mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One part of that legislation, known as Title VI, disallows race-based discrimination – either purposeful or in effect – by any entity that receives federal funding.
Given that the DENR receives some funds from the EPA, it is now that agency’s civil rights investigators who are looking into the issue. The complaint was sparked by the DENR’s updating, in March, of its permitting for hog CAFOs, including around the control of animal wastes.
Critics say these reforms failed to address either the health or discriminatory effects of this process, including specific requests to bring the permitting process in line with Title VI. They say not only are the state’s regulations in this regard too weak, but oversight is likewise severely under-resourced, though the current complaint does not focus on enforcement.
“This permit renewal does nothing, and doesn’t take into account the negative impacts to the communities living and working near the hog facilities,” Larry Baldwin, a coordinator with the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group and one of the members of the new filing, told MintPress.
“These hog facilities are disproportionately located near communities of color … The Title VI complaint is a significant step in beginning to correct the injustice that communities in North Carolina have had to bear for decades from the hog industry.”
Concerns over the inordinate impact on minority communities by the siting of eastern North Carolina hog CAFOs are not merely anecdotal. The complaint relies particularly on the findings of epidemiologists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who crunched demographics data.
According to that study, released in August, those living within 3 miles of a hog CAFO in the eastern part of the state (excluding major urban areas) are more than 1.5 times more likely to be people of color. Indeed, Native Americans are well more than twice as likely to be living within that radius, the researchers found.
The current complaint is focused solely on North Carolina, and even on a fairly small slice of that state. Given that the state is such an outlier in the unusually high number of large-scale feedlots that it hosts, especially so close to communities, the complaint’s most direct impact would inevitably be in North Carolina, depending on its outcome.
Yet there remains a distinct and important national tenor of the Title VI complaint around North Carolina’s hog CAFOs, and supporters say officials across the country will be watching to see how both the EPA and the state respond as the investigation proceeds. In particular, the probe could signal just how serious the EPA is about cracking down on situations of potential discrimination.
“The EPA has not done a good job of enforcing Title VI. So, states and other recipients of federal funds have become accustomed to them doing a terrible job and are not used to having anyone ask about disproportionate impact,” Lado, the Earthjustice attorney, said.
“But some have called environmental justice the ‘sleeping giant.’ And if this giant is waking up and people are looking into whether state permitting actions are discriminatory – well, if you’re a state, you’re going to pay attention.”
The EPA’s initial jurisdictional decision in this case is due any day. Thereafter, the EPA should have six months in which to carry out its investigation and to make a preliminary decision about whether there has been discrimination in North Carolina’s hog-farming permitting process.