Op-Ed

We rely on self-reporting of hog lagoon spills. We shouldn’t.

An aerial view of a hog farm operation located next to the Trent River, near New Bern, in 1995. The large alage growth in the foregound is a result of the runoff from the hog farm into the river, said the Neuse River Foundation. The site is no longer a hog farm.
An aerial view of a hog farm operation located next to the Trent River, near New Bern, in 1995. The large alage growth in the foregound is a result of the runoff from the hog farm into the river, said the Neuse River Foundation. The site is no longer a hog farm. Staff

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.”

Self reporting

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The ​​problems​ ​of​ ​permitting ​outdated​ ​waste​ ​management technology​ ​near​ ​our​ ​rivers,​ ​lakes,​ ​and​ ​streams are highlighted by this spill.​ ​Swine​ ​facilities​ ​collect​ ​untreated​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.​ ​

Multiple violations

Lanier Farm​s ​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 lowerneuserk@soundrivers.org.

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