Commentary, Environment

Environmental advocates: We’ve had it up to here (literally) with polluting polystyrene

In case you missed it earlier this week amidst all the hubbub at the General Assembly, the good people at the advocacy group Environment North Carolina launched an important new anti-pollution campaign against one of the most ubiquitous and destructive byproducts of our modern, supersized, fast food-obsessed lives. This is from the announcement that accompanied the group’s Wednesday press event near a polluted Durham creek:

Some of the plastic waste recently cleaned from Durham’s Ellerbee Creek

Environment North Carolina’s New Campaign: Wildlife Over Waste
The Campaign Aims to Bolster Local Efforts and Ban Harmful Plastic Pollution, Starting With Polystyrene.

Plastic pollution is killing our wildlife. That’s why Environment North Carolina is announcing a new campaign and working with local partners to ban harmful types of single-use plastic food containers in North Carolina.

Polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, is one of the worst and most common types of plastic. Americans throw out 70 million polystyrene foam cups every day, and that doesn’t include bowls and takeout containers. Roughly a third of that discarded plastic ends up in our waterways: rivers, lakes, and especially oceans.

“Polystyrene foam is material we use only once for our food and drink, yet it lasts in our environment forever, causing harm to people, drinking water, and ecosystems. And many cities’ trash is trucked to lower-income counties where landfills are filling fast. Styrofoam is a pollutant to North Carolina, and this state-wide ban represents a first step to breaking our ‘take-and-trash’ addiction and moving toward a sustainable reuse economy. ” said Crystal Dreisbach, Co-CEO of GreenToGo, and Executive Director of Don’t Waste Durham. Read more

agriculture, Environment

NC Farm Act, fattened with protections for hog industry, up for Senate vote at noon

Sen. Brent Jackson: “The judge was wrong” to let nuisance lawsuits move forward. (Photo: NC General Assembly)

Room 1127 of the Legislative Building was hot, noisy and crowded, with onlookers packed cheek to jowl. The scene at yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee meeting felt temporarily like a hog confinement barn, but without the manure.

However, private property and environmental advocates would argue that the NC Farm Act stinks. Among its many problematic provisions, Senate Bill 711 would immunize industrialized hog operations from virtually all nuisance lawsuits. It would also establish the outdated and noxious method of open-air waste lagoons and spray fields as the preferred method of managing millions of tons of hog manure and urine.

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican who represents three major hog-producing counties — Duplin, Sampson and Johnston — insisted that the bill would still hold “bad actors” accountable.

The problem is, that if the bill becomes law, there will be very few, if any bad actors.

The key section, “Clarify and Amend North Carolina Right to Farm Law” establishes that farms are presumed not to be a nuisance if they are complying with state regulations — regulations that are weak and only lightly enforced.

“This is not just a clarification” of the law, “but a radical change,” said Michelle Nowlin, a supervising attorney at Duke University’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. “It deprives people of their fundamental rights and sanctions a taking of property to benefit private industry.”

Only the most egregious, flagrant violations would be vulnerable to a nuisance lawsuit. For example, Lanier Farms in Jones County discharged millions of gallons of hog manure and urine into the Trent River last September. No one filed a nuisance suit, but because of the farm’s 10-year violation history, state officials finally fined Lanier $64,000, the largest such penalty against a hog farm. Faced with bad publicity and potential Clean Water Act violations, Murphy-Brown pulled its pigs from the operation, which is now closed.

Nor would hog operations be considered a nuisance if they are managed in a manner “substantially consistent with practices, methods or procedures generally accepted and routinely utilized by other agricultural and forestry operations in the region.” (The bill also applies to forestry and all agriculture, but hog farms generate the most complaints.)

Deciphered, this means that if all hog farms in a “region” use open-air manure lagoons and spray that feces and urine onto their fields, then they are not a nuisance.

“People have to live in these conditions,” said Sen. Paul Lowe Jr., a Forsyth County Democrat. “It’s horrifying to think about. I hate to think about what it does to property values. It turns my stomach to hear some of this stuff.”

Read more

agriculture, Environment

The plot thickens on SBI investigation of Duplin County employee over hog lagoon tests

Billy W. Houston, a watershed technician who samples contaminants in hog lagoons for the Duplin County Soil and Water District, also moonlights as a private consultant doing the same work. And that raises questions about whether his questionable activity — now the target of an State Bureau of Investigation probe — occurred on the county clock or on his own time.

Update: Thursday at 10:09 a.m.: Frank Williams, Duplin County Soil and Water District, confirmed that Houston did this work as part of his private consulting business, not on county time.

Duplin County Attorney Wendy Sivori confirmed that Houston’s employee records list a second job similar to the one he holds with the county. Sivori said she had not heard of the SBI investigation until Policy Watch informed her of it.

The SBI is looking into why Houston’s sampling results of contaminants in 55 hog lagoons on 35 farms in Duplin and Sampson counties were similar, even though the lagoons were in most cases, miles apart and the farms had different numbers of hogs.

As Policy Watch reported yesterday, Houston’s sampling results were drastically different from subsequent tests conducted by the NC Department of Environmental Quality. In most instances, Houston underreported levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals, such as copper and zinc, in the lagoon sludge —  as much as 101,000 percent, according to state records.

Houston has not returned a phone call nor an email from Policy Watch seeking comment.

The Department of Agriculture, which originally tested Houston’s samples, is conducting its own investigation. So is DEQ, which returned to the farms and conducted independent sampling. Neither agency could comment on the status of their respective ongoing investigations.

According to state records, Houston sampled at least 13 of the farms on the same day, March 17. He then sent his samples to the Department of Agriculture for testing, which is protocol. The Agriculture Department lab uncovered discrepancies in the results and alerted DEQ, which regulates the farms.

On April 13,  DEQ’s Division of Water Resources sent seven teams of employees to sample the same 55 lagoons at the 35 farms. The farms were given two days’ notice, although that is not legally required.

DEQ has publicly released 13 of the 35 letters it sent to farmers alerting them of the discrepancies. Although the correspondence is public record, the agency is providing them only when the farmer confirms he or she received the letter.

Policy Watch received eight letters on Monday and five on Tuesday. (See below for the letters.)

If it turns out that Houston sampled all 55 lagoons on 35 farms in a single day, that in itself would seem nearly impossible given the time constraints, particularly in mid-March. The length of daylight on March 17 was just over 12 hours, so Houston would have had to have worked from sunrise to sundown, averaging three farms per hour with no breaks.

Even visiting 13 farms in a single day seems onerous, given the territory in two counties that Houston had to cover.

The farms in question differ significantly in the average number of hogs they can house. For example, Kevin Bostic’s farm in Duplin County is permitted for 3,200 hogs. Bizzell Davis’s farm, also in Duplin County, can accommodate 6,400. Laylan Houston is allowed to house about 2,400, according to state permit records.

It’s also unclear if Houston charged different fees and used a different testing protocol for his private work. Part of the investigation presumably focuses on whether the 35 farms in question were tested while Houston was working for the county or independently.

Houston has worked for the Duplin County Soil and Water Conservation District since September 1983. He also is designated as one of 400 technical specialists designated by the North Carolina Soil and Water Conservation Commission. His speciality is listed as waste utilization and runoff controls.

Technical specialists have the authority to certify that animal waste management plans meet the applicable minimum standards and specifications.

BJD Farm I by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Cedar Lane Farm by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

L&D Farms by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Kevin Bostic Farm by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Terry Miller Farms by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

agriculture, Environment

BREAKING: SBI investigating Duplin County employee over lagoon testing on hog farms

The locations of eight of the 35 farms sampled by Duplin County Watershed Technician Billy Houston. Some of the locations have more than one farm. These were sampled on March 17. Because of discrepancies in the results, Houston is being investigated by the SBI and DEQ.

This is a developing story. It will updated as soon as more information becomes available.

The State Bureau of Investigation is investigating a 35-year-employee of the Duplin County Soil and Water District over questionable results of lagoon testing on dozens of hog farms. SBI spokeswoman Patty McQuillan confirmed the existence of the investigation to Policy Watch but could not provide other details.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality independently confirmed it is opening its own investigation into  tests conducted by Billy W. Houston, a watershed technician who has been with the Duplin County SWD since 1983. Houston did not return a phone call or an email Monday afternoon seeking comment. SWD Board of Supervisors Chairman Frank Williams and Vice Chairwoman Ann Herring, which are elected positions, did not return emails seeking further information.

The case currently centers on 35 farms and 55 lagoons in Duplin and Sampson counties where Houston tested sludge– essentially hog feces, urine, dander, feed, as well as water used to flush the confinement barns — in the hog lagoons. The sampling measures levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and heavy metals, and is required by state permits before the material can be applied to spray fields.

According to letters dated May 21 from DEQ to the farm operators, the sampling conducted by Houston produced consistently and drastically different results when compared with tests subsequently conducted by the state. For example, levels of zinc at one farm’s lagoon were 101,108 percent higher when sampled by the state than by Houston. At another farm, Houston underreported copper levels by 910 percent. In a few cases, Houston’s results were higher than the state’s; at one lagoon, his sampling showed the presence of aluminum but the state did not detect any.

Waterkeeper Alliance, the NC Environmental Justice Network and REACH obtained eight of the letters and provided them to Policy Watch after publicly announcing their contents yesterday. DEQ said it would release the remaining letters once the farmers have confirmed they received them.

Houston, who is based in Kenansville, sampled lagoons from at least eight farms on March 17. He then gave the samples to the NC Department of Agriculture lab, which is protocol. In turn, that lab found unexpected similarities in the results across all of the lagoons, even though they are on different farms miles away from one another.

The Agriculture Department then alerted DEQ’s Division of Water Resources, which regulates the farms in Duplin and Sampson counties. DWR conducted its own testing on April 13, sending seven teams to sample 55 lagoons at 35 farms. After the state regulators found the excessive discrepancies, it notified the farmers and opened its investigation.

Hog farmers use the sampling results to determine how much sludge they can apply to their spray fields. State permits regulate how much sludge can be applied in order to prevent the fields from being overloaded with contaminants. If a farmer applies too much sludge, the soil can’t handle the contaminants, which then can leach into groundwater or runoff the field into waterways and adjacent properties.

It’s unclear if DEQ has requested land application records from the farms in question to see if the sludge had been sprayed on the field. Under North Carolina law, those records are kept on the farm and not publicly available unless state regulators request them.

 

Dotson Farm by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Melvin Farm by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Powell Farm by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Next Generation Farm by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

H&J Nursery by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Bjd Farms II by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Davis I Farm by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Davis II Farm by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

agriculture, Environment

Black neighbors, white farmer (and police chief): Murphy-Brown nuisance trial heightens environmental justice concerns

Joey Carter raises hogs for Murphy-Brown on two farms just west of Beulaville in Duplin County. The buildings, lagoons and sprayfields are shown here in the upper left and lower left areas of the aerial photo. The seven families suing Murphy-Brown live within just a few hundred yards of the buildings, lagoons or sprayfields. Their homes are on the right side of the photo. (From court exhibits)

1,300 words, 6-minute read

Update: Since there are questions about the veracity of the reporting, court documents, which form the basis of the story, have been uploaded to this post. Clarification: Because of the manner in which the court has ordered the cases to proceed, the plaintiffs’ and defense attorneys alternate in choosing the parties. In the first case, the plaintiffs’ attorneys chose; in this case, the defense did. Thus, the 30 original plaintiffs who sued Murphy-Brown in this case, has been narrowed to two: Elvis and Vonnie Williams.

A t nine o’clock one recent morning the doors to a seventh-floor federal courtroom in Raleigh swung open, revealing an unspoken truth.

On the plaintiffs’ side, nearly everyone seated was Black; on the other, everyone associated with the defense was white.

Now, plaintiffs and defendants often sit on opposite sides of the aisle; it’s a common way to self-organize. But this nuisance trial, and the one before it, have amplified the environmental justice issues associated with industrialized hog farms in eastern North Carolina. Both cases have pitted Black neighbors seeking relief against white-owned farms, whose operations and hogs are controlled and owned by Murphy-Brown, the world’s largest pork producer.

In this trial, the second of roughly two dozen scheduled through the year, seven Black families totaling 30 plaintiffs originally sued Murphy-Brown, although because of a court order, that number has been reduced to two. The company owns the 4,740 hogs raised by Joey Carter, a contract grower in Beulaville, in Duplin County. But in addition to his power as a farmer backed by a billion-dollar corporation, Carter has a special status: He served as a Beulaville police officer for 32 years, four of them as chief.

Hog nuisance trials are underscoring the #environmentaljustice issues associated with #CAFOS in eastern NC Click To Tweet

The issues of race, though, are still lingering in the background and have yet to be delved into during the first week of the trial. Instead, the plaintiffs’ attorneys at Wallace and Graham, based in Salisbury, are laying a similar foundation to the one that succeeded in the previous case: Prime the jury on the basics of nuisance law. Educate them on the health problems associated with living near industrialized hog farms.  Then zero in on the wealth and political power of Murphy-Brown, including the corporate giant’s apparent unwillingness to substantially change its farming methods in the name of profit.

Beulaville, population 1,300, is in eastern Duplin County. Big Ag, including companies like Murphy-Brown, Carolina Turkeys and House of Raeford,  is a major industry in the county, but the wealth has not trickled down to the average person. More than 21 percent of Duplin County residents live below the federal poverty level, compared with 15 percent statewide. Read more