agriculture, Environment

In settlement with environmental groups, DEQ changes complaint process about swine farms

Elizabeth Haddix (Photos: Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality says it will be more transparent about how it handles citizens complaints against industrialized livestock farms, including those that have been cited for violations as the result of those complaints.

DEQ is implementing the new complaint investigation process as part of a settlement agreement with several environmental groups and their attorneys: Cape Fear River Watch, Waterkeeper Alliance and the NC Environmental Justice Network were represented by Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin of the newly formed Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights.

Haddix and Dorosin were previously attorneys with the UNC Center for Civil Rights until the university system’s board of governors disbanded it for political reasons. The NC Pork Council, a frequent target of the center’s litigation, was among the industry groups that had complained about the center to the board.

DEQ’s new protocol includes timelines for complaint investigation and a requirement that agency investigators consider all information submitted by complainants. Under the agreement, DEQ must detail documentation of how agency staff responded to the citizen complaints.

In addition, DEQ agreed to maintain, and update monthly, an online list of complaints for which a determination of violation has been made, so that citizens can track the outcome of their interaction with the agency.

DEQ also agreed to publish an annual report denoting the number of complaints received about animal operations, number of complaints investigated, and number of complaints where a violation was found.

Mark Dorosin

The case started in the fall of 2016 after watchdogs captured time-stamped and geo-located images of swine farm operators spraying waste on fields after a flood watch had been issued, before Tropical Storm Hermine and Hurricane Matthew, according to a statement from Haddix and Dorosin. State permits prohibit farmers from applying swine waste on fields within a certain time of when rain or thunderstorms are forecast. This restriction helps keep the manure from running off the farm and onto nearby property or into waterways.

Although the watchdogs reported the illegal spraying to DEQ — then under the leadership of Secretary Donald van der Vaart — the agency did not respond. In December 2016, the groups filed a challenge in the NC Office of Administrative Hearings.

“African American, Latino, and Native American communities disproportionately bear the burden of living near industrial hog operations in Eastern North Carolina,” said NCEJN co-director Naeema Muhammad in a prepared statement.” This settlement is an important step toward easing that burden.”

Today’s settlement is separate from a Title VI civil rights complaint that NCEJN, Waterkeeper Alliance, and REACH  have filed with the EPA against DEQ, alleging that the general permitting process for swine farms disproportionately burdens communities of color.

The EPA had scheduled a confidential mediation session between DEQ and the complainants. But in January 2016, DEQ officials apparently tipped NC Pork Council representatives to the mediation. Even though the Pork Council was not a party to the mediation, several representatives showed up anyway. Given the tense history between the Pork Council, swine farmers and their neighbors, the complainants viewed the intrusion as an attempt to intimidate them.

Haddix and Dorosin in turn filed a retaliation complaint on behalf of the complainants in the spring of 2016.

The complaint is still in private arbitration.

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