Two years into an investigation of the health problems affecting minority communities near large-scale hog operations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s civil rights office has written a stern “letter of concern” to state regulators.
The EPA says the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has not done enough to reduce asthma, stench, flies, truck traffic and other problems caused by the facilities. The federal agency also says it has “grave concerns” about reports from minority neighbors of threats and intimidation against those who have complained.
The 25-page letter to the state environmental agency, dated Jan. 12, begins by acknowledging the change in administrations with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s victory over incumbent Republican Pat McCrory. Lilian S. Dorka, head of the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office, writes that the agency recognizes there are new leaders who haven’t been involved in the issue.
Dorka said even though the EPA hasn’t finished its investigation, it sees a window of opportunity to quickly resolve the dispute, beginning with a meeting by state and local officials.
The EPA faults North Carolina for not having an anti-discrimination policy in place, as required by federal law, and for not imposing requirements on hog farmers to use better technologies and practices to reduce pollution.
“We all are glad the EPA expressed and shared those concerns,” Will Hendrick, an attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance in Chapel Hill, said Wednesday. “We’re also hopeful that the new administration will view this as an opportunity to take long overdue action. The state has acted as though these concerns were not legitimate.”
A spokesman for the state agency said Wednesday the letter is being reviewed.
The N.C. Pork Council responded by pointing out that the industry is heavily regulated in North Carolina, with a ban on constructing new farms, annual inspections, mandatory setbacks from neighbors, and prohibition on discharging waste into the state’s waters.
“North Carolina hog farmers are good neighbors who care deeply about protecting our water and air,” Andy Curliss, chief executive officer of the Pork Council, said in a statement released Wednesday. “We welcome the opportunity to sit down with state regulators and those who live near our farms to address any concerns they may have.”
North Carolina’s swine industry is mostly confined to Duplin and Sampson counties. There are more than 9 million hogs allowed in more than 2,000 industrial hog facilities, which are operating under a permit that the state issued.
The conflict between large-scale hog farms and their neighbors dates to the 1980s, with the expansion of industrial livestock operations. In 1997, the General Assembly put a moratorium on expanding swine operations that used lagoons and field spraying to manage hog waste. The moratorium was made permanent in 2007, but farms already operating were allowed to continue.
In 2014, environmental advocacy groups N.C. Environmental Justice Network, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, and Waterkeeper Alliance filed an administrative complaint over DEQ re-issuing the swine permit without substantially revising waste management requirements. In 2015, the EPA began looking at whether the operations discriminated against minorities by disproportionately threatening their health.
Later in its investigation, the agency also began pursuing reports of harassment. Federal officials said some of those interviewed reported firsthand experiences with swine operation owners or operators that included verbal threats, being tailgated over long distances as they drove, and being confronted with firearms and physical violence. The EPA letter says many neighbors gave up, feeling that state regulators would not help them.