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EPA to probe whether DENR failed minorities living near hog farms

Don Webb poses near a creek that has been contaminated by waste from a nearby hog farm Sunday, July 7, 2013, near Stantonburg. Webb is one of 588 people who recently filed nuisance complaints about against Smithfield Foods. The residents argue that hog farm odors and pollution make it impossible for them to enjoy their homes, creating the basis for nuisance complaints. Their suits come at a time when the General Assembly proposes to change the law to prohibit any newcomers to hog farm neighborhoods from filing nuisance suits. An amendment introduced in a senate committee meeting also would make it so neighbors who lose in court would have to pay the legal bills of the corporate farms.
Don Webb poses near a creek that has been contaminated by waste from a nearby hog farm Sunday, July 7, 2013, near Stantonburg. Webb is one of 588 people who recently filed nuisance complaints about against Smithfield Foods. The residents argue that hog farm odors and pollution make it impossible for them to enjoy their homes, creating the basis for nuisance complaints. Their suits come at a time when the General Assembly proposes to change the law to prohibit any newcomers to hog farm neighborhoods from filing nuisance suits. An amendment introduced in a senate committee meeting also would make it so neighbors who lose in court would have to pay the legal bills of the corporate farms. tlong@newsobserver.com

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will investigate whether the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources lightly regulated the state’s industrial hog operations because their neighbors are minorities.

The Waterkeeper Alliance and other groups released an EPA letter Wednesday stating the federal agency will launch a civil rights investigation of DENR. The groups had asked the EPA last fall to investigate whether DENR would have been tougher on 2,000 North Carolina swine operations raising 10 million hogs if the neighbors were not black, Hispanic or Native American.

“What they’re looking at is whether or not living in proximity to the facilities is harmful and whether or not that harm disproportionately impacts” minorities,” said Marianne Engelman Lado, an attorney for the advocacy group Earthjustice representing the complaining groups. “The community has for generations at this point, for decades, been crying for more protection from the waste.”

The EPA letter dated last Friday said its decision to investigate doesn’t suggest it has found evidence backing the complaint.

“We understand that the EPA has agreed to review the complaint and will provide any information the agency needs during that process,” DENR spokesman Drew Elliot said in an emailed statement.

EPA said in a statement that its Office of Civil Rights is trying to resolve the complaint informally while it investigates the state agency.

Neighbors of industrial-scale hog farms have complained for decades that collecting manure in cesspools before spraying it onto farm fields generates unbearable smells and harms health.

EPA said it needs more information before it decides whether to investigate a second allegation – whether North Carolina’s DENR failed to enforce its regulatory or statutory requirements for swine farms.

The EPA complaint is part of a raft of efforts by environmentalists, community groups and local governments from Washington state to Iowa and North Carolina pressuring the livestock industry to change its methods. The arguments are based on studies that increasingly show the impact phosphorous, nitrate and bacteria from fertilizer and accumulated manure have on lakes and rivers as well as air pollution that may be harmful to respiratory health.

The activism comes decades after hog and other livestock operators joined other types of farm producers in consolidating. For example, the hog industry had more than 200,000 farms in the early 1990s, a number that fell to about 21,600 by 2012.

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