On August 31, as many North Carolinians were making plans for Labor Day weekend, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) responded to a complaint of untreated waste spewing from an industrial swine facility into a stream near the town of Comfort in Jones County.
The toxic mix of feces and urine entered the Trent River, a popular recreational resource for fishermen and paddlers. Hours before the holiday weekend, DEQ issued a statement urging the public “to use caution and avoid contact with the water if engaging in recreational activities in this area.”
Last week, DEQ fined the owner of the facility more than $64,000 for the “egregious violation of state law.” Secretary Michael Regan noted, “It is totally unacceptable and illegal for someone to knowingly discharge contaminated wastewater that threatened our rivers and streams.”
While we applaud the efforts of DEQ to enforce North Carolina’s laws that protect natural resources and the public’s health, the spill underscores numerous environmental and public health problems associated with animal waste management at industrial animal facilities.
It highlights the degree to which DEQ relies on self-reporting by the industry. Because DEQ assumes industrial hog facilities do not discharge waste, there is no regular monitoring of the air, surface waters, or groundwater nearby. Instead, facility operators are expected to notify DEQ “as soon as possible” after violating the non-discharge requirement. This spill was reported anonymously.
The problems of permitting outdated waste management technology near our rivers, lakes, and streams are highlighted by this spill. Swine facilities collect untreated waste in an open-air cesspool on-site before spraying it onto nearby cropland.
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 existing facilities were grandfathered in and continue to threaten our environment.
Lanier Farms has been repeatedly cited for problems with its waste management. The facility has received multiple Notices of Violation each identifying multiple violations. The notice issued for this spill contains 11 separate violations, the vast majority of which pertain to improper storage or disposal of untreated animal waste.
DEQ’s efforts to enforce the law in this instance are praiseworthy, but one questions the agency’s ability to prevent harm caused by mismanagement of animal waste. Industrial agriculture permits are important for the protection of our rivers, but they lose their value and protectiveness with lack of enforcement.
Given the permit’s reliance on self-policing, one wonders how many facilities have violated the law with impunity by not reporting their violation. Without regular monitoring these facilities may break the rules all year long until their annual inspection, negating the effectiveness of the permits.
DEQ is currently in the process of readopting the rules regarding animal waste management. Now is the public’s chance to express concerns and urge DEQ to improve the management of the swine industry. We encourage anyone concerned about pig waste in our waters to demand better of our environmental agency.
Katy Langley is the Lower Neuse Riverkeeper for Sound Rivers, a private nonprofit. She lives in New Bern and can be reached at email@example.com.