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.






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.”

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.

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.

Contentious farm bill, which eases restrictions on some hog operations, goes to Gov. Cooper

Sen. Tom McInnis: “A hungry man is a mean man.”

Sen. Tom McInnis, a Richmond County Republican, has been known to lob puzzling remarks over the heads of his legislative colleagues, and today he tossed a few more questionable quips in his support for the controversial NC Farm Act.

One part of the bill would allow industrialized hog operations that install biogas systems to forgo upgrading to superior waste management technologies as long as the number of hogs doesn’t increase on the farm. Nearly all of the 2,000-plus hog farms in the state use outdated and environmentally harmful open lagoons and spray fields to store and dispose of feces and urine.

Since 2007 there has been a permanent moratorium on new and expanded industrialized hog operations unless they use better waste management methods. The farm bill chips away at that.  The biogas modifications would not have to  meet or exceed the required environmental performance standards. Nor would it trigger a new permitting process.

“We already see some of our companies being bought out by communist farmers,” McInnis said during a discussion on the Senate floor.

It’s unclear who McInnis was referring to. The measure’s beneficiary — Smithfield Foods —  ironically, is owned by the Chinese.

McInnis: “When we get to the point where we have to rely on foreign nations to feed ourselves, that will be a dark day.”

The US doesn’t rely solely on foreign nations, but a quick trip to the grocery store shows that the country imports a lot of food. Since 2007, according to USDA figures, the US has steadily increased both the amount and the value of food it imports. The average annual increase in tons ranges from 0.9% (dairy) to 1.6% (meat) to 5% (vegetables) and  7% (vegetable oils).

Over the same time period, the dollar value of all imported food increased by a third accounting for inflation.

McInnis: “A hungry man is a mean man, and we don’t need to be running into that situation.”

According to Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, 604,000 households, equaling 16% of the population in North Carolina, is “food-insecure,” meaning they either don’t have enough to eat or they have to make difficult choices about the amount and quality of the food they buy.

Sen. Harper Peterson, a Wilmington Democrat, opposed the bill.. “I think it’s a move in the wrong direction,” he said. “It’s a step backward and I think we can do better.”

The Senate passed the measure 39-9; the House passed it yesterday. The bill now goes to the governor.

Environmental groups swiftly condemned the measure. “This bill, like many before it, ignores the communities who live near factory farms and who suffer environmental nuisances,” said Cassie Gavin, director of Government Affairs for the North Carolina Sierra Club in a prepared statement. “These neighbors have repeatedly won in court, but the legislature keeps offering more special treatment for the industrial hog industry instead of addressing problems.”

The North Carolina Conservation Network immediately sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper asking him to veto the bill.  “We are deeply concerned that these changes could pave the way for further development of biogas, or swine waste to energy in a way that would further entrench the use of the outdated lagoon and sprayfield system as a mainstay of North Carolina agriculture—a system that exacerbates environmental, civil rights and public health harms,” the letter read.

The other controversial section of the bill makes private certain Soil and Water Conservation District and SWCD Commission documents that are currently public. Records and documents that are generated by or for soil and water conservation districtsinvolving individual landowners and agricultural producerswould be confidential. 

Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the State SWCD Commission are under the Department of Agriculture.

In each of the four previous trials, plaintiffs attorneys entered dozens of soil and water conservation documents into evidence. Some of these records showed that lagoons and spray fields were inaccurately designed. As a result, the lagoons contained more hog waste than they were constructed for, contributing to the odor, flies and other nuisances that juries determined interfered with the neighbors enjoyment of their property.

As Policy Watch reported last year, these documents contain water quality and quantity information, required as part of a pollution control program. That program is funded by the state and federal government under an Agricultural Cost Share agreement.

Under the proposal, no one, including plaintiffs in the swine nuisance lawsuits, could obtain these documents under the Public Records Act; the documents could still be subpoenaed.

Farmers applications for federal funds and the contract documents that require approval of soil and water conservation officials would still be public.

However, that still leaves entire categories of documents off-limits: Lagoon construction, design criteria, operational reviews, assessments, notes of site visits and complaints would all be behind a veil of confidentiality, said Ryke Longest, director of the Duke University Environmental Law Clinic.

The state Agriculture Department has stated that federal law allows these records to be kept confidential. But Longest told Policy Watch last year that federal public records exemptions “apply only to federal records for federal programs. State cost-share records are not exempted” from public records laws.

Brooks Fuller is the director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University. He told Policy Watch that “what is especially troubling about this provision is that it exempts records related to the implementation and supervision of water quality programs, including the allocation of grant money and federal dollars.

A provision to outlaw smokeable hemp was struck from the bill because lawmakers had been arguing since last year over whether allowing it would be tantamount to legalizing marijuana. Sen. Jackson said the USDA has enacted temporary rules, which are in flux. “We figured that this being so contentious in the House and so much changing with the Feds, we would wait on it,” Jackson said.

“We’re not trying to end hemp farming,” Jackson added, “we’re just trying to make sense of what happens next.”

An industrial hemp pilot program, which launched in 2015, will be valid until October.

Lawmakers also eliminated another controversial portion of the measure that would have allowed farmers to allow some shooting sports on their property.

Additional reporting by Aditi Kharod.