Farm Bureau wins Round 1 versus DEQ over swine farm requirements

This is a developing story and will updated.

The North Carolina Farm Bureau has temporarily prevailed in a contested case hearing against the NC Department of Environmental Quality over three issues related to industrialized hog farms.

Administrative Law Judge Donald Overby on Friday placed a temporary stay on requirements that were included in general swine permits: groundwater monitoring, annual reporting, and phosphorus loss tests.

Overby didn’t rule on the necessity of these requirements, only on whether DEQ was legally allowed to include them in the general permits.

The Farm Bureau had claimed that DEQ had overstepped its authority to incorporate these requirements into its general swine permits, which were to go into effect last October. However, because of the contested case hearing, the changes, which strengthen some aspects of CAFO operations, have not been implemented.

Overby ruled that the law requires DEQ to go through rule-making on these three provisions rather than unilaterally inserting them into the permit. The Environmental Management Commission is in charge of rule-making for DEQ; it can take 18 months to two years for the rules to be drafted, debated, submitted for public comment and finalized.

General swine permits cover most of the concentrated animal feeding operations in North Carolina; they are used to cover a class of operations, rather than individual permits. General swine permits are up for re-adoption every five years.

Several of the new provisions in the general swine permits came about because of a settlement agreement between civil rights groups and DEQ. The groups had filed a complaint with the EPA against the agency in 2014 over the disproportionate effect of swine CAFOS on communities of color. The EPA agreed that the complaint had merit, and in 2018, DEQ and the groups reached an agreement.

During the public hearings on the general permits, the Farm Bureau, Pork Council and many contract growers for major hog producers Smithfield and Prestage argued that the permit requirements for groundwater monitoring, annual reporting and phosphorus testing were onerous or redundant.

However, groundwater monitoring is important because runoff or leakage from enormous hog waste lagoons can seep below the surface and into neighboring private drinking water wells or rivers and streams. Annual reporting, DEQ and civil rights groups say, more closely monitor waste management and environmental issues that these farms can pose. DEQ required phosphorus loss tests because they can indicate erosion or runoff from the farms, which in turn can create harmful algae blooms in waterways.

The NC Environmental Justice Network and the state. NAACP had tried to get the court’s approval to intervene in this case but were denied last year. They could appeal the judge’s decision. Overby has not ruled on the entire case; a hearing is scheduled for July 28.

 

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