By Greg Barnes and Emily Davis

A Senate committee approved the proposed Farm Act of 2019 on Wednesday, paving the way for turning hog waste into energy and adding regulations to the state’s growing hemp industry.

The proposed bill, which was unanimously approved, now moves from the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee to the Senate Finance Committee for additional scrutiny.

It does so without a proposed amendment from Sen. Harper Peterson, a Democrat from New Hanover County. Peterson wanted the Environmental Review Commission to study the environmental and human health impacts of the state’s dry-litter poultry farms and determine whether more regulations are needed.

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Peterson noted that poultry has become the biggest agricultural industry in North Carolina. He said the state now has 4,700 poultry farms, about 2 ½ times more than its 2,100 industrial hog farms.

Those poultry farms produce about five times the waste as hog farms, and considerably more nitrogen and phosphorous, he argued.

Fight over regulations

The poultry industry uses or sells much of its dry litter as fertilizer. Peterson and others are worried about what remains behind.

“There is no regulation, oversight, permitting addressing the dry-litter poultry production,” Peterson said. “I think this is odd, an anomaly to me because it is such an important industry in that it essentially self-regulates itself.”

By comparison, he said, the state’s swine industry is heavily regulated.

Flooded poultry farm in Eastern NC post Matthew. Image courtesy NC Waterkeeper Alliance

“God forbid something happen that we have some catastrophe within the poultry industry because of a lack of regulation, oversight, permitting, documentation of how dry-litter waste is handled in our state,” Peterson said. “We have documented scientific evidence to demonstrate that this is a health issue.

“Litter, whether it is swine, poultry, is an issue and I think it’s long overdue for this study to take place and this industry to come out into the light.”

No support

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican representing, Duplin, Sampson and Johnston counties, asked the committee not to support the amendment for two reasons.

“To my knowledge, we have not had any issues within the poultry industry in this state,” said Jackson, who is a farmer. “They have done an outstanding job of regulating and maintaining good practices throughout, that I’m aware of.”

Jackson also said the Senate this year has made a strong effort to limit the use of study committees. If a committee wants to study the issue later, he said, they are welcome to do so.

Sen. Tom McInnis (R-Ellerbe) said he asked the North Carolina Poultry Federation for rules and regulations regarding poultry litter and was handed a document that measured about three-quarters-of-an-inch thick.

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“We don’t need this,” McInnis said about Peterson’s proposed amendment. “We have enough laws, enough rules and enough restrictions on the books. Our poultry farms are doing a great job … I like fried chicken and I had some on Sunday.”

Exact numbers unknown

After the hearing, Jackson downplayed concerns about poultry houses flooding, as they did during Hurricane Florence, killing more than 4 million turkeys and chickens. The state has been buying out hog farms in designated flood plains, but not poultry farms.

Jackson acknowledged that millions of taxpayers’ dollars were spent to help farmers clean up their dead birds after hurricanes Matthew and Florence, but he said no one could have predicted two 500-year storms in two years.

“We can’t predict when we’ll get the next flood, but I mean these folks have done the best they can, and when you have natural disasters like this everything’s off the table,” Jackson said. “It’s a whole new ballgame.”

Part of the concern over dry-litter poultry farms, environmentalists say, is that state regulators don’t know that many of them even exist.

“Multiple facilities were flooded during Hurricane Florence that were not there during Hurricane Matthew. We don’t know an exact number because DEQ does not know where these facilities are located,” said Matthew Star,  riverkeeper for the Upper Neuse River.

Earlier this year, the national Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group released a report that mapped all of the state’s poultry operations. The report said the poultry industry had grown from 147 million birds in 1997 to 515 million in 2018.

The highest numbers of poultry since the 1990’s have been in the Yadkin-Pee Dee and Cape Fear basins. The Yadkin-Pee Dee Basin had the highest poultry population with bird inventories over 15 million in Union County and over 11 million in Wilkes County in 2014. Map, data courtesy: NC DEQ

Audience speaks

About a dozen people in the audience spoke before the Senate committee approved the Farm Act. Most expressed concerns about the proposed regulations for the hemp industry.

Some opposed or asked for clarification of measures in the bill that pave the way for Smithfield Foods to begin covering hog lagoons and adding anaerobic digesters to start producing natural gas from hog waste.

Smithfield announced in October that it plans to cover lagoons and add digesters at 90 percent of the farms where its hogs are raised. The plans are to capture methane under the covers, convert the methane to natural gas and sell the gas to power companies.

Environmentalists oppose the plans, saying they would further entrench the industry’s use of lagoons and spray fields. They also oppose sections of the Farm Act, including one that would keep some documents generated by soil and water conservation districts confidential.

Jackson said Wednesday that the proposal would do no more than federal privacy laws already require.

Last week, environmentalists complained about sections of the bill pertaining to odors. In an email, Angie Maier of the N.C. Pork Council said those regulations pertain to energy generated from poultry waste, not hogs. She also said licensed engineers would be required to design and develop biogas systems on hog farms.

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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