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By Greg Barnes

Rick Dove nailed it Tuesday night when he said there were three disparate groups at a public comment meeting on new permits for large-scale hog farms — state regulators, farmers and environmental activists.

“We are all one in Eastern North Carolina … but as long as lagoons and spray fields are in use, there will never be peace,” Dove, a founding member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, told roughly 300 people at the first of two Department of Environmental Quality public meetings on drafts for new general permits for swine, cattle and wet poultry operations.

The DEQ is proposing substantial changes and stricter requirements in its swine waste management system general permit, which is reissued every five years. This new permit would take effect Sept. 30.

Hog farmers who attended the meeting at James Sprunt Community College in Kenansville said the proposed changes would place an undue and excessive burden on them. They spoke passionately about their efforts to protect the environment and to preserve their livelihoods. Many blamed environmental activists for forcing DEQ into unnecessarily revising the permits.

“So often they use fear, not truth or science,” to back their claims, said Chad Herring, a third-generation farmer and director of N.C. Farm Families.

Opinions left unchanged

Residents and environmentalists who spoke applauded the revisions but said they don’t go nearly far enough to protect the state’s rivers and streams, groundwater and the health of people living near farms that collect the waste from thousands of hogs in open pits and then spray it on adjoining fields.

Some said Smithfield Foods and other companies that contract with the farmers to raise their hogs should pay for installing new technology that would do away with the lagoons and spray fields once and for all. Some wondered why corporate executives didn’t attend the meeting.

The pork industry, hog farmers and some powerful politicians in this state are loudly critical of the nuisance suits against hog farms in eastern North Carolina. Here is one sign supporting hog farmers seen in the summer of 2018 in Kenansville, the county seat of Duplin County, one of the largest pork-producing counties in the country. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

No minds were apparently changed during the three-hour meeting that drew a fairly equal number of farmers and activists. The environmental group Cape Fear River Watch chartered a bus for people from the Wilmington area. The farmers didn’t have to go that far. Kenansville sits in Duplin County, the heart of hog country.

Farmers were the first to sign up, so most of them were the first to speak.

“Hog farmers of Eastern North Carolina, our way of life is under attack,” said Leon Arthur, who said he represented hog farmers of Eastern North Carolina. “Increasingly, we are considered criminals. We are required to prove we are not. I thought it was the other way around.”

Brandon Moore, a director of the North Carolina Pork Council, said activists use “shameful” rhetoric.

“I can safely say no one cares more than us” about the environment, Moore said. “We take our responsibility seriously, and we are very proud of that record.”

A steady stream of farmers followed Moore to the microphone, almost all of them saying they are good stewards of their land and calling proposed amendments to the permits burdensome, punitive, redundant, discriminatory, unfair and unnecessary.

Farmers objected most strongly to proposed requirements that would make them file annual reports to DEQ that would be subject to public scrutiny; having to use the N.C. Phosphorus Loss Assessment Tool if their spray fields test above the threshold for phosphorus; and new statutory and regulatory requirements that would require them to apply for an individual permit if they are deemed a significant water polluter.

Farmers applauded loudly as each of their counterparts finished speaking at the microphone.

The farmers had a different reaction when the activists got their turn. Many sat in their seats, arms folded. Some bowed their heads or rolled their eyes. A few laughed in disbelief when black speakers recounted the hardships they had to endure from living near a hog farm.

Environmentalists take their turn

Activist Priss Endo called the use of hog waste lagoons and spray fields “an intolerable practice” that needs to be replaced with new technology.

“Expense is not an excuse for ignoring this technology,” Endo said.

Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper and executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, pointed to “countless failures” of lagoons and spray fields, leading to higher rates of disease, deaths and fish kills.

“We have to do it better, and we have to do it now before we pass the point of no return,” Burdette said.

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Dana Sargent, deputy director of Cape Fear River Watch, and other activists said big corporations — not the farmers — are largely to blame. They said most farmers try to be good stewards of the land, but the integrators — the corporations — refuse to pay the farmers enough or to make technological advances and other changes that would stop the pollution.

“They can afford it,” Sargent said.

Elsie Herring of Wallace said most hog farms are located near low-income, black neighborhoods and are operating in violation of federal civil rights laws.

“The people who are living in those conditions are not being protected,” Herring said.

Larry Baldwin, the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper, said he has proof that hog farms are major polluters downstream of where most of them are located.

He called the proposed general permit for swine operations “a stepping stone.”

“It is time for the integrators to step up and hold themselves responsible,” Baldwin said.

Dr. Robert Parr, who practices emergency medicine for hospitals in New Hanover and Pender counties, spoke toward the end of the meeting. Parr said no one had yet to address one of the most alarming statistics — the poor health in Duplin, Sampson, Bladen and Columbus counties caused by air pollution. Air pollution is among the highest in the state in all of those counties, he said, noting that 168 different types of gasses are being emitted from industrial-scale farms.

“The air quality affects more people than water,” yet the state doesn’t regulate it, Parr said. “They don’t even know what’s there.”

Lawmaker says blacks not unduly affected

State Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a farmer whose House district covers Duplin and part of Onslow counties, also addressed the gathering toward the end of the meeting.

DEQ officials, seated at the table, prepare to begin a public comment meeting attended by roughly 300 farmers and environmental activists Tuesday night in Kenansville. Photo credit: Greg Barnes

Dixon said he had not come prepared to speak but felt it was necessary. He said it was obvious that everyone who spoke was sincere and that everyone wants the same thing: clean water and air and an informed public.

But Dixon said he wanted to discuss one misrepresentation. He said blacks aren’t disproportionately affected by hog farms, a statement that brought gasps from some in the crowd. He said 62 percent of people living near hog farms are white.

“Fact check me,” Dixon said.

A study released by Duke Health and published Sept. 18 in the North Carolina Medical Journal found that more African-American and Indian residents live in state zip codes with industrial-size farm operations compared with those living in areas without them.

The study also found that people living near hog farms had higher disease and death rates than comparable state residents who did not live near them. The study did not establish whether the higher death rate was caused by the farms.

“This study provides a necessary road map to better understand how poor health outcomes persist in these communities, which are uniquely affected by demographic, socioeconomic, behavioral, and access-to-care factors in addition to the presence of hog CAFOs,” wrote H. Kim Lyerly, senior author of the study.

At least one major change is coming to the hog industry.

Smithfield Foods, which contracts with most of the hog farmers in North Carolina, announced last fall that it plans to cover 90 percent of the lagoons on finishing farms and add digesters within 10 years.

Those plans are expected to result in methane gas from the lagoons being trapped and sold to power companies, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases. Farmers are expected to share the costs and any profits from the sale of methane.

The lagoon covers are expected to lessen the likelihood of a lagoon failure during severe storms.

Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com