agriculture, Environment

1,000+ dead fish: DEQ releases more troubling details on hog lagoon spill

Three million gallons of hog feces and urine killed more than 1,000 fish in Wagner Ditch/Plainveiw Pond, a half-mile from B&L Farms. Waste were also found in wetlands near Starlins Swamp, 1.35 miles away.

The breach of a hog lagoon that spilled 3 million gallons of feces and urine into streams, ponds and wetlands in the Cape Fear River Basin killed at least 1,000 fish — and occurred because of neglect and mismanagement.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality released more details yesterday about a June 12 spill at B&L Farms, north of Spivey’s Corner in Sampson County. Investigators found that Bryan McLamb, who raises hogs form Smithfield Foods, had allowed the level of waste to reach the top of the lagoon berm “for a prolonged period of time.”

According to their environmental permits, all farms must keep waste at certain levels below the top of the berm to prevent it from overflowing, especially when it rains. To accomplish this, farms pump the lagoon through spray the waste on their fields.

The day before the breach, it had rained 2 inches at the farm.

But McLamb chronically failed to manage the lagoon, investigators found. The waste levels had been so high and for such a long time that the earthen lagoon berm was saturated and “notably soft” when walked on. Vegetation along the crest of the berm had died because it had been inundated by the feces and urine.

And after the previous rain, McLamb did not inspect the lagoon to ensure it was intact and not overflowing. The lagoon marker had also been installed incorrectly, so the measurements were inaccurate.

As a result, on the morning of June 12, a Smithfield crew that had arrived at the farm to remove some pigs for slaughter, discovered the breach. But there were further delays in notifying the state. The crew relayed information first to Smithfield; at 9:40 a.m. Smithfield then called McLamb, who went to the farm to confirm the breach. McLamb then called the farm’s technical specialist, Curtis Barwick, who called DEQ shortly after 11.

By the time DEQ investigators arrived at the farm at 12:40 p.m. 3 million gallons of feces and urine had “coursed overland into wetlands, and surface waters, including Starlins Swamp, 1.35 miles from the lagoon. Investigators also documented waste and dead fish in the Wagner Pond about a half-mile from the lagoon, where there were “a minimum of one thousand dead fish including brim, catfish, bass, an eel, and other panfish.” Hog feces “were also documented in wetlands.”

Policy Watch reported earlier this week that subsequent testing by DEQ showed extremely high levels of fecal coliform bacteria — at least 3,000 times higher than water quality standards — in waters downstream.

In addition to neglecting the lagoon, McLamb had also failed to keep proper records of lagoon levels and spraying. Nor did he ever notify DEQ that his lagoon was too full, as required, even though McLamb said it had been for several months.

DEQ cited McClamb for multiple violations. He has 20 days to submit additional information and a written response. Afterward, DEQ will determine the fine.

agriculture, Environment

Sampling results show extremely high levels of hog feces, urine in waterways after lagoon breach

DEQ sampling sites after a hog lagoon breach at B&L Farms in Sampson County.

Levels of fecal bacteria at least as high as 3,000 times the state standard were found in ditches and waterways after a hog lagoon spill in Sampson County in June, state environmental sampling shows.

On June 12, the lagoon at B&L Farms, 2525 Plainview Highway, north of Spivey’s Corner, partially breached. Three million gallons of feces and urine flowed onto  the farm property into a ditch that leads to Starlins Swamp, part of the Cape Fear River Basin.

According to state records, the farm is permitted to house as many as 2,580 swine. It has one lagoon, approximate two acres in size and 10 feet deep.

Sampling results released today from four downstream locations showed fecal coliform levels on the day of the spill ranged from 20,000 colony forming units of fecal bacteria, or CFUs to 380,000. At the farm, levels of fecal bacteria reached at least 600,000 CFUs, which would be expected considering it was the source of the spill.

State surface freshwater quality standards limit fecal coliform to 200 colony forming units, or CFUs, based upon at least five consecutive samples examined during any 30-day period. Nor can these concentrations exceed 400 CFUs in more than 20% of the samples examined during that time.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality sampled over eight days, June 12 to June 25.

The levels of fecal bacteria varied during that time, initially declining before rebounding in some instances. Even 10 days after the spill, all the sampling stations except for Mill Pond showed levels well above state standards.

Nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia were also detected, but there are no state or federal numeric standards for nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia in surface water.

The agency is still working on a Notice of Violation, DEQ spokesman Robert Johnson said.

 

 

 

 

 

agriculture, COVID-19, Governor Roy Cooper

18 groups petition Gov. Cooper for more COVID-19 data transparency, especially from meat-packing plants

Workers in a hog slaughter and processing plant (Photo: US Government Accountability Office)

As the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise in North Carolina, there is still a lack of data regarding outbreaks at meat-packing plants, where employees work close to one another on assembly lines and kill floors.

The dearth of transparency by both the NC Department of Health and Human Services and the meat industry prompted 18 environmental justice and worker advocates to petition Gov. Roy Cooper to provide more information and strengthen employee safety requirements.

The letter, dated June 16, urges the Cooper administration, including DHHS “to ensure that all race and ethnic demographic data related to COVID-19 tests, cases and fatalities, as well as additional guidance for the protection of critical infrastructure workers, including meat processing and poultry processing plant employees, be released to the public.”

Meat-packing plants and agribusiness in general have been reluctant, if not hostile, to disclose the extent of the disease in their facilities. DHHS has refused to release data by facility, saying it doesn’t regulate the plants.

(Policy Watch is among a coalition of media outlets suing DHHS and Gov. Cooper over their failure to provide public records, as required by law. Today, a judge ordered the parties to enter into mediation, starting July 14.)

Most rank-and-file plant workers are from communities of color. Both statewide and national data has shown that Black and Latinx people account for a disproportionate percentage of the COVID-19 cases.

As of May 28, 2020, according to the groups, Blacks accounted for 31% of North Carolina cases, but make up only 22.2% of the population. Thirty-six percent of confirmed cases are Latino people, who compose only 9.6% of the state population.

“Yet, even now the number of workers infected in plants in North Carolina remains elusive – a problem only further compounded by recent reports indicating that neither the meatpackers nor state or local officials are moving toward reducing these gaps in needed public health data,” the letter goes on.

The groups asked for seven changes to the administration’s current policy:

  • Require public disclosure of the number of all confirmed cases of COVID-19.
  • Add information reflecting locations of polluting facilities by zip code.
  • Require employers to test all employees and require all workers who test positive to self-quarantine for at least 14 days and to test negative before returning to work.
  • Require employers to provide the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and washing stations and hand sanitizer for all employees.
  • Require employers to follow social distancing guidelines at their facilities.
  • Provide sick leave and hazardous pay for any employee working during the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Encourage different agencies within the state government to work together to address environmental justice issues and COVID-19 response.

As for smaller meat processors, they wouldn’t have to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines in order to be eligible for state grants, according to a bill that moved through the agriculture committee yesterday.

House Bill 1201 would appropriate $15 million to the NC Department of Agriculture to award as grants to small meat processors, which would alleviate any bottlenecks in the beef, pork and poultry supplies.

Rep. John Ager, a Democrat from Buncombe County, wanted to amend the bill to add worker protections and to require workers to be paid for two weeks if they can’t work because of COVID-19. “It’s money well-spent to keep workforce healthy,” Ager said during the agriculture committee discussion. “These meat and poultry plants don’t operate without workers that’s what this amendment is all about.”

The Farm Bureau immediately opposed the change. “This amendment puts a regulatory requirement on very small processors the grant is trying to help. They’re already trying to follow CDC guidelines,” Paul Sherman of the Farm Bureau told the committee.

Although the funds would be in the form of a grant — free, as opposed to a loan that would need paid back, Sherman said the amendment “would kill the interest in small processors from applying for the grant.”

Bill sponsor and Republican Rep. Jeffrey Elmore lives in Wilkes County, home to the Tyson plant, where at least 570 of 2,244 employees — a quarter of the workforce — tested positive for the coronavirus in May.

“You’ve got to remember is this [bill covers] very small processors with not a lot of employees,” Elmore said. “The grant money that could be used for machinery would be going to sanitation. It’s like taking a bazooka to an ant.”

agriculture, Environment, Trump Administration

Ousted from DEQ, John Evans, an opponent of regulation, lands job at EPA writing air quality rules

John Evans (File photo: DEQ)

John Evans, former Chief Deputy Secretary of the NC Department of Environmental Quality, has spent much of his career opposing tighter air regulations. Now he has a new job: Writing air quality rules for the EPA.

Evans recently started working at the EPA office in Research Triangle Park, according to two people familiar with the position. Evans is listed in the staff directory.

A rule writer is a key position within EPA. Evans works in a section that writes Clean Air Act rules for forestry, food and agriculture. The section’s official name is Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, Sector Policy and Programs Division, Natural Resources Group.

The Natural Resources Group writes air rules governing a range of industries and uses, including pesticide applications,  pulp and paper manufacturing, and facilities that make wood preservatives, vegetable oil, even nutritional yeast.

Evans joins the EPA at an auspicious time for those who oppose tighter regulations. Under the Trump administration, the EPA is quickly gutting rules, more than 100 so far, according to The New York Times. Of those rollbacks, 27 govern air pollution. That includes a rule proposed last year that would reduce the area of pesticide application buffer zones, a regulation that falls under the Natural Resources Group.

Currently, pesticide applicators must stop their work if someone enters the buffer, also known as an Agricultural Exclusion Zone. By reducing the area of the zone, more people — farmworkers, nearby residents and passersby — could be legally exposed to these chemicals.

Evans is professionally qualified for the job, having served as an air quality supervisor, general counsel and chief deputy secretary for the NC Department of Environmental Quality. But he has consistently — and publicly — called for weaker air quality regulations, especially in his opinion pieces that appeared in professional law journals.

Evans worked in DEQ’s air division before his ascension to a top rung of the department. Former Gov. Pat McCrory had appointed Donald van der Vaart as Secretary of the Environment in 2015; in turn, van der Vaart named Evans as his chief deputy.

During their tenure, the agency became more vocal in its anti-regulatory, pro-business stance. DEQ sued the EPA over the Clean Power Plan and clashed with the Obama administration about the PSD rules. Van der Vaart was in charge when the EPA disapproved of North Carolina’s implementation plan for those rules, as they related to emitters of fine particulate matter. That pollution, known as PM 2.5, is important because it burrows into the lungs and can cause or worsen respiratory illnesses.

DEQ unsuccessfully challenged the EPA’s disapproval in court, and ultimately had to change its plan.

When the governor’s office changed hands in 2017, van der Vaart and Evans could have been ousted because they were political appointees. To stay employed, van der Vaart demoted himself — and Evans — to section chiefs within the air division. They were responsible for overseeing monitoring, permitting and enforcement staff within their respective sections.

It was in those roles that, as Policy Watch reported in late 2017, Evans and van der Vaart co-authored a controversial article in the Environmental Law Reporter  They wrote a seven-page opinion piece calling for the repeal of a core tenet of the Clean Air Act, known as PSD, or Prevention of Significant Deterioration.

The intention of PSD regulations is to prevent major polluters from eluding stricter emissions rules by moving into areas where the air is relatively clean. The industries could then sully the air in their new locations.

While the men acknowledged in a easy-to-miss disclaimer that their views didn’t reflect that of DEQ, their bylines prominently carried their respective titles. The article’s anti-regulatory stance not only clashed with those of the new DEQ leadership, but also appeared to flout its authority.

The new DEQ Secretary, Michael Regan, placed both van der Vaart and Evans on administrative leave. They later resigned. Van der Vaart now is a senior fellow at the conservative John Locke Foundation. He also sits on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, an appointee of former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt.

Van der Vaart was also appointed by Sen. Phil Berger to the state’s Environmental Management Commission, which approves the rules enforced by DEQ.

agriculture, Environment

Partial hog lagoon breach spills 3 million gallons of feces, urine in Sampson County

B&L Farms, where the hog lagoon breach occurred, is near two swamps. The orange dots represent hog farms, the blue shaded areas show flood-prone areas. (Map: DEQ)

June 15, 6:59 p.m. This story has been updated with comments from the Department of Environmental Quality.

Three million gallons of feces and urine spilled from a hog lagoon Friday, as farm owners to tried to prevent the waste from entering a nearby swamp.

The lagoon breach occurred at B&L Farms, 2525 Plain View Highway, which is south of Dunn and north of Spivey’s Corner in Sampson County. The farm, owned by Bryan McLamb, reported the spill to the Department of Environmental Quality, as legally required. McLamb is a contract farmer for Smithfield.

DEQ said most of the waste was contained on the property, but an undetermined amount entered a ditch that leads to Starlins Swamp, part of the Cape Fear River Basin. DEQ is sampling the swamp area for fecal matter, pH readings, and various other nutrients and expect the results on Tuesday.

A temporary patch was applied to the lagoon, DEQ spokesman Robert Johnson said, and some of the animal waste was returned to the lagoon; other portions were pumped to the downstream pond and sprayed onto fields when the weather permitted.

B&L has a state permit to raise 2,480 hogs, which generate about 4,700 tons of waste per year, according to state records. The waste is stored in a two-acre lagoon, which is 10 feet deep.

The farm also had to remove the animals from the barns because of the spill. “Animal waste was not filling the barn, but the farm was depopulated for several reasons, including animals being sent to market and to ensure the rest had an adequate waste management system to support them,” Johnson said.

It’s unclear what caused the breach, a DEQ spokesman said.. About a half-inch of rain fell on Friday, according to the nearest official weather station at the  Fayetteville Regional Airport. The previous 10 days had been dry.

The cause of the breach and the freeboard levels at the time of the breach are still under investigation.

DEQ inspection records show that last August the lagoon was in compliance, but the farm had reported “high freeboard” — the level of the waste in the lagoon to the top. The inspector noted that the farm would “continue working on the banks” and “would be removing sludge.”

The rural area is dense with hogs. According to DEQ records, within two miles of B&L four additional farms are permitted to raise more than 39,500 swine. By comparison, the census tracts containing those farms are home to fewer than 5,000 people. More than 40% of the residents are low-income, and 13% to 23% live in communities of color.