agriculture, Environment

What’s that smell? The Farm Act of 2017.

This is a farm. To keep wedding venues from posing as farms, Senate lawmakers had to define the term in the Farm Act.

W hile the House dashed through its version of the state budget at the speed of light, for the past two days the Senate Agriculture/Natural Resources Committee plodded through other Very Important Business: the finer points of the farm act, the criminal element that is rumored to loiter near stream buffers, a hinky provision concerning coastal development, and what has become a crowd favorite — leachate aerosolization.

First, SB 615, the farm act.

Veterans of the legislature rightfully become concerned when a lawmaker says “All this section does is x.” Or, as Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican, quipped: “This is one of the shortest ones I’ve run in the last few years and the least controversial. We’ll see here in a moment.”

The 16-page bill (that started as four) would temporarily exempt from odor rules those farms that store poultry manure to be used for renewable energy. The Environmental Management Commission would have to craft an amendment to the existing odor rule governing waste-to-energy storage. These changes must go through public comment so the rule could take several months, if not a year to enact.

“All this does is allow a farmer to buy poultry litter from multiple sources to burn as renewable energy,” Jackson said. Otherwise the facility would fall under an industrial class and be subject to odor rules. “If there’s just one source, you may not have enough to keep the system running.”

The premise sounds reasonable, except the so-called hog nuisance bill just became law, and the language is vague enough that poultry operations could be included in it. Under that statute, citizens are limited in the amount of compensatory damages they can be awarded for agricultural inconveniences like bacteria from fecal matter on their homes or acrid odors in their living rooms.

“Let’s say I’m a citizen who wants to complain about odor, can I get an injunction?” asked Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat from northeastern North Carolina.

The answer is yes. Citizens can file an objection with the NC Department of Environmental Quality. They can sue and/or ask a judge for an injunction. But lawsuits require money and time. And odor exemptions could be abused.

The other reasonable-on-its-face-questionable-in-real-life section would strip counties of their authority to adopt zoning regulations governing all types of farms. If a farm is “bona fide” — that is, generates at least 75 percent of its gross sales from farming activities and qualifies for a conservation agreement — then it is exempt from local zoning regulations.

Jackson said the 2007 permanent moratorium on the construction of new hog farms removes the need for county ordinances governing them.

We’re trying to clean up our boots,” Jackson said.

Existing farms are grandfathered under the moratorium, although they can’t expand. Farms with advanced waste systems can be built, but none have been, so far. But if such a modern farm were to be constructed, a county could not use its zoning power to restrict its location.

And finally, it might seem silly that lawmakers have to define the term “farm,” but indeed they do. Many rural Orange County residents oppose the Barn of Chapel Hill, aka “the Party Barn,” which hosts weddings, because of concerns over noise, bright lights and drunken driving.

The Barn is on 22 bucolic acres near White Cross. But two beehives and a smattering of flowers do not a farm make. There must be official government paperwork. There must be evidence that you’re legit. Only then can there be noise, bright lights and drunken driving.

The bill passed the Senate Ag committee. It now heads to Finance and Judiciary.

Next: HB 56 and HB 576, environmental laws and the leachate bill.

agriculture, Environment, Trump Administration

Sad! Leaked Trump budget shows huge cuts to coastal protection, farm programs and renewable energy

Republican Lieutenant Gov. Dan Forest, in a speech to Duplin County farmers last fall, proclaimed that “Donald Trump knows agriculture.”

That statement seemed to puzzle even the conservative crowd, considering Trump is from New York City and likely wouldn’t know a hay baler from a manure spreader.

The president’s proposed budget, due out tomorrow but leaked in advance, not only cuts EPA staff and services, but also zeroes out several line items, including many of particular relevance to North Carolina, according to the document, released by the Third Way, a centrist think tank, and verified by various federal officials.

Funding would be eliminated for watershed and flood prevention operations and the agricultural disaster relief fund, key to hurricane recovery in North Carolina.

Also gone: the Grassroots Source Water Protection Program, which prevents pollution of surface- and groundwater that can contaminate rural residents’ drinking water wells. And the Emergency Conservation Program, which assists farmers and ranchers repair their land after natural disasters — vanished.

Energy efficiency and environmental protection fare even worse. The Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would receive $636 million — down by 70 percent from $2.1 billion currently appropriated. In 2011, the EERE office funded nine Wind for Schools projects in North Carolina.

In addition to EPA staffing cuts, the Greenhouse Gas Reporting program would be reduced from $8 million to zero, according to analysis by Inside Climate News. Under this program, industrial facilities report their greenhouse gas emissions. In North Carolina, 138 emitters report to the database. From 2011 to 2015, the amount of greenhouse gases in the state fell from 71.5 million metric tons to 62.9 — 13 percent.

The $27 million National Estuary Program, which protects coastal waterways is also gone, as is the $7 million for environmental justice. The absence of that program could stall North Carolina residents’ Title VI complaint against NC DEQ over its roles in alleged intimidation by the hog industry.

The EPA’s Indoor Radon Program is eliminated. This is important for the North Carolina because of the prevalence of the naturally occurring — but cancer-causing — gas in areas of the state. Eight counties in western NC have a high potential for elevated indoor radon levels; another 31 in the foothills have moderate potential. Exposure to radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the US.

Funding for the EPA’s lead risk reduction program is zeroed out under Trump. Exposure to lead can cause permanent developmental disabilities  State health department figures from 2014 show that more than 1,600 children ages 1 and 2 had elevated lead levels in their blood. That’s equivalent to a state average of 1.3 percent of the 122,481 toddlers tested.

More than half the counties had rates higher than the state average; McDowell and Chowan counties, 4.7 and 4.8 percent of toddlers tested high.

As for adults, 12.3 percent of 5,329 people 16 and older had elevated blood levels, according to the state health department.

The budget is expected to be officially released Tuesday, while Trump is on his overseas trip.

agriculture, Environment

Analysis: In Senate budget large farms win, small farms and the environment lose

Own a large farm? You’re in high cotton. Small farm? Not so much. (Photo: Creative Commons)

T he Senate could not be clearer about its policy priorities for the state’s agriculture barons. While lawmakers continue to prop up industrialized farm operations through, for example, the passage of the hog nuisance lawsuit measure, HB 467, the Senate budget eliminates all $237,000 in state funds for the small farm program. This service provides outreach and education to  limited-resource and minority farmers.

With the Senate pulling the financial rug from under this program, that leaves just $46,000 in revenue, all generated by fees and receipts. Three people will lose their full-time jobs.

In another win for big ag and a loss for the environment, the Senate robs Peter (NC Department of Environmental Quality) to pay Paul (the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services).

As revenge for NC DEQ’s withdrawing from a federal lawsuit against the EPA over the Waters of the US rule, the Senate stripped $2 million from DEQ’s budget through 2019. That money is transferred to the agriculture department, which could then use it to hire outside counsel to fight the rule. (The department also could use it for any purpose, aka, a slush fund.)

Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, a Republican, has long criticized WOTUS, as its known, alleging it’s an example of “federal overreach.” What the rule actually does is compensate for lax local and state rules by defining which rivers, streams, lakes and marshes fall under the jurisdiction of the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Opponents are worried that these federal rules will prevent their livestock and fertilizers from fouling the state’s waters with impunity.

Last month, Gov. Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein and DEQ Secretary Michael Regan all agreed to withdraw from the list of 27 states suing over WOTUS. The motivation was not just philosophical but fiscal: Because President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have indicated they’re killing the WOTUS rule, to fight it is moot.

Otherwise, the Senate’s appropriations for the Agriculture Department are slightly higher than the governor’s proposal. The exception is the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. Cooper proposed a one-time injection of $1.35 million, with a $400,000 appropriation this year and next. Total: $2.1 million.

The Senate version provides less than half that amount — $1 million.

The Senate is proposing a one-time $200,000 appropriation to increase the availability of fresh produce and meat in food deserts across the state. About 1.5 million North Carolinians live in a food desert, defined as a place where at least one-third of residents live in poverty and a mile or more from a grocery store. In 2014, a House committee determined there were 349 food deserts in 80 of the state’s 100 counties.

Below are charts compiled by NCPW, comparing the main points of the governor’s and Senate’s budgets for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Ag Budgetcomparison by LisaSorg on Scribd

Ag Positions by LisaSorg on Scribd

agriculture, Environment

When pigs fly: Hog nuisance bill clears first hurdle toward full override

A veto override of the hog nuisance bill squeaked through the House today. Illustration: Andor Holtsmark, Creative Commons

Today in the House chamber the opening act upstaged the headliner.

Before the House got down to its business of overriding Gov. Cooper’s veto of controversial House Bill 467, its members, per tradition, invoked several ceremonial items. Today House members recognized podiatrists and Cheerwine. Then, in a moment of cognitive dissonance, the House also honored the Confederacy and the 150th anniversary of the historically black college, St. Augustine University.

In the House gallery, a crew of people dressed in period Confederate Army uniforms, while others, who had serious, professional business to tend to, discreetly sported Confederate flag pins on their lapels. (Outside the legislative building, several older men added a “Make America Great Again” ballcap to their ensemble.)

The House, in honoring the Confederacy on “Heritage Day,” asked the men in gray to stand, as well as a couple of women dressed in hoop skirts and bonnets. People applauded, except for one African-American man sitting beside me.

Confederate Heritage Day in the House Chamber coincided with the 150th anniversary of the historically black college, St. Augustine University. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Yvonne Holley, a Wake County Democrat who is African-American, fortunately eased the bewilderment of the Northerners in the crowd by naming all of the St. Aug’s faculty and staff in the gallery, as well as recognizing 10 African-American students. But by then, the folks in the Confederate uniforms had left.

Then down to nitty-gritty: On the House floor, bill sponsor Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican and a farmer from Duplin County, soft-peddled the essence of the legislation. “It’s a very good bill that is geared specifically toward promoting agriculture, particularly livestock,” Dixon said.

What Dixon didn’t say is that the bill favors livestock over the people who are stuck living next to these gigantic farms. The measure caps the amount of compensatory damages land owners can be awarded in a nuisance lawsuit to the fair value of their property. Yes, they can sue for other types of relief, but the compensatory damages in general, can cover not only property value decreases, but medical bills and emotional distress.

Considering that bacteria from hog feces was found last fall on more than a dozen homes near these farms, medical bills are certainly a possibility. But they would not be covered under HB 467.

As NCPW has reported, the legislation will likely discriminate against communities of color, who are more likely to live near these industrialized operations. The Environmental Working Group recently analyzed tax records and determined that 60,000 people in North Carolina live within a half-mile of an industrialized livestock farm. An estimated 270,000 live within three miles.

The bill also undercuts the enjoyment of private property rights. It’s also important to note that these nuisance lawsuits aren’t frivolous. A judge or jury has determined that the farms, through their odor and spraying  and drifting of fecal matter onto nearby properties, have indeed damaged the landowners’ quality of life.

The House needed a three-fifths majority to override the governor’s veto, or 72 votes. The House squeaked it out: 74–40. Had three of the seven Democrats who voted for the override pushed the red button, the override would have failed. That’s because three Republicans voted to sustain the veto: John Blust, Hugh Blackwell and Cody Henson. The seven Dems were William Brisson, Charles Graham, George Graham, Ed Hanes Jr., Howard Hunter III and Michael Wray.

The bill now heads to the Senate.

agriculture, Environment

Quick hit: Senate’s environmental budget cuts key positions, services at DEQ

You can’t get blood from a turnip, but the Senate is trying, via enormous cuts to the NC DEQ budget. (Creative Commons)

F ew people have had time to take a deep dive into the hours-old, 857-page Senate budget and accompanying policy document. But at first glance, the Senate appears to be punishing the NC Department of Environmental Quality with sharp cuts to staff and services.

The most breathtaking reductions include the elimination of 45.5 full-time equivalent positions in an agency that has been decimated over the last six-plus years. DEQ isn’t just down to the bone, but the bone marrow.

The budget also directs Secretary Michael Regan to find $4.5 million somewhere (maybe in the waiting-room couch cushions? In the fountains at the Legislative Building?) for “efficiencies.”

Where will this money go? Well, $1 million of it would walk over to the Department of Agriculture to hire outside counsel to fight the EPA’s Waters of the United States rule.

It’s not too strong to say that this is legislative payback for Regan and Gov. Cooper’s decision to withdraw from the WOTUS lawsuit. North Carolina was one of 27 states suing the EPA, alleging clean water rules exceeded federal authority. The Trump administration has already signaled WOTUS, a leftover from the Obama administration, is dead. So Cooper and Regan decided not to waste taxpayer money on a lawsuit that would go nowhere.

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