Video: Air detectives dive into North Carolina pork and poultry waste problem

Conditions were optimal for an overflight on a bright, sunny November day in New Bern, a riverside town that was the first state capital of North Carolina and the birthplace of Pepsi. Larry Baldwin and Rick Dover, his colleague from the Riverkeeper Alliance, an international nonprofit focused on drinking water, stood beside a small Cessna plane, reviewing their flight plan before taking off.

Baldwin’s mission was to fly over eastern North Carolina, host to a growing number of industrial-scale pigsties and chicken coops, often crammed next to each other, to gather evidence of the waste being released. in nearby streams and waterways, which could threaten neighboring communities contaminated with air and water.

For years, Baldwin and his colleagues in Riverkeeper organizations across the state have undertaken airborne sorties on privately-chartered planes to document the waste of pigs and poultry that infiltrated watersheds. Baldwin is said to be taking photos to supplement ongoing investigations into breeding operations he suspected of illegally contaminating the water with waste from open pits of pig excrement and urine.

“These concentrated animal feed operations, or CAFOs, are spread over large areas, primarily in rural North Carolina, and it is not easy to discover a violation of the route,” Baldwin said. “That’s why we have to get on these little planes to see from above whether a pig or poultry facility is committing an offense.”

Thefts, Baldwin said, are the best way to gather evidence of violations and potentially illegal waste management practices by CAFO operators, he said, as well as to monitor the growing proliferation of pig farms and large-scale poultry farming in areas with low-income communities of Color.

“The most typical pollutants found in the 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 exhibit variable risks to human health “.

Larry Baldwin, CAFO Coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance, reviews flight plans with colleague Rick Dover prior to the flyby to spot and document CAFO concentration and potential violations. Credit: Aman Azhar

A recent to study by the National Academy of Sciences attributed 95 premature deaths each year in Sampson County, North Carolina, and 83 such deaths in its Duplin County, to fine particle air pollution caused, in part, by emissions ammonia from pig farms. Minority neighborhoods in the state are disproportionately affected by pollution from pig farms and face a myriad of pollution-related health issues, including anemia, infant mortality, kidney disease and sepsis, according to a study by Duke University.

For years, civil rights activists have reported long-standing environmental problems associated with the continued use of lagoon systems and spray fields, an outdated waste management practice in which urine and pig feces untreated are stored in giant, open lagoons and periodically sprayed into the air and onto neighboring fields as fertilizer.

Unregulated chicken and turkey operations add contamination

The problem is compounded by the rapid proliferation of the poultry industry, which is largely unregulated. The state Environmental Quality Department does not even have information on the location or waste disposal practices of these industrial scale poultry houses and turkeys.

Commercial poultry farms produce more nitrogen- and phosphorus-laden waste than the state’s huge commercial hog farms, but do not require operating permits, are not required to submit farm management plans. waste to DEQ and can only be inspected if someone in the community complains about their operations.

Nutrient pollution from excessive application of nitrogen and phosphorus in animal manure and chemical fertilizers is considered one of the most widespread and costly environmental problems in the country, causing algae blooms. that kill fish, harm aquatic habitats and make humans sick with high concentrations of toxins and bacterial growth. .

The virtual absence of regulatory controls and enforcement measures left communities to fend for themselves. Water wardens are trying to fill the gaps by monitoring CAFO air and water pollution.

“We combine aerial surveillance with field investigation, including groundwater testing to assess whether there are high levels of nutrients or harmful bacteria in the body of water near the suspected facility. pigs or chickens, ”Baldwin explained. When high levels of pollution are detected, these results are sent to the DEQ for action.

But the state regulator has not taken action against the violators despite evidence of illegal discharges proven by extensive testing of the water over time, Baldwin said. “The DEQ does not have the resources to undertake an independent investigation to detect a violation and would not admit our findings because they are made by a third party,” he said.

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Josh Kastrinsky, a public information officer for the DEQ, responded that the ministry “investigates complaints about animal feed operations to ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations for the protection of the environment and public health. “.

Kastrinsky said the Department’s Water Resources Division “may consider third-party evidence as part of their investigation, but cannot take enforcement action based solely on that data without verification by inspectors.” The Water Resources Division, he said, investigates complaints alleging immediate threats to the environment or to human safety or health within 24 hours. For other complaints, he makes on-site visits within five working days.

So Waterkeepers also educate the public about environmental damage and public health risks that their CAFO investigations reveal. “Hopefully this will lead to increased public pressure that can get the state to do the right thing,” Baldwin said.

For years, environmental groups have joined with communities close to pig and poultry farms to urge policy makers to design a better waste management system than the outdated lagoon and spray field systems currently in use.

Instead, last July, the North Carolina state legislature passed the Farm Act of 2021, which requires the state regulator to provide a general permit within one year to allow Interested pig farms to trap methane from pork waste stored in open lagoons and convert to biogas.

DEQ has already granted four biogas permits to pig facilities in eastern North Carolina under a $ 500 million program known as Align Renewable Natural Gas, or Align RNG, a joint venture. between Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy Inc. which started in 2018.

Two North Carolina civil rights groups have filed a complaint with the United States Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the state environmental agency’s approval of the biogas production plan despite the fears that the project will increase air and water pollution.

DEQ is required to finalize the general authorization process before the deadline of July 1, 2022.

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