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

Education, Environment, News

Senate approves budget, now heads to N.C. House

Members of the N.C. Senate approved a $23.9 billion budget Thursday morning that, much to Democrats’ consternation, swept through the chamber with no allowance for amendments.

Policy Watch has detailed the primary aspects of the GOP-authored spending plan. The headlines include a 6.5 percent raise for teachers and another round of tax cuts.

But critics say the legislature still failed to adequately fund public schools, approved scores of “pork” provisions, slighted the state’s well-documented environmental headaches, and effectively quashed amendments to the privately-negotiated budget by bundling it in a conference committee report.

The spending plan is now bound for the state House, where it’s likely to pass in the coming days. Republicans also hold a veto-proof majority in the event that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoes the budget.

From the progressive N.C. Justice Center’s Alexandra Sirota, director of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, today:

One would think that legislative leaders would be proud of yet another round of cutting taxes for the wealthiest and shortchanging everyone else. But if they are, why did they develop their budget in secret and why are they limiting opportunities for debate and amendments?

Maybe they don’t want North Carolinians to know that they chose to keep the tax rate cuts scheduled for 2019 that will mean $900 million less for communities across the state.

Or that they are putting us on a path that will mean revenues will not be able to maintain current services for the state’s population in future years.

Maybe they don’t want North Carolinians to know that the tax cuts aren’t growing our economy.

Or maybe they don’t want to have to engage with teachers and students who know their classrooms need state investments to ensure a sound, basic education.

Maybe they don’t want to have to hear from older North Carolinians who won’t be able to stay in their homes due to a lack of investment in home health care and meal delivery. Or from the families who are living on bottled water because their water is toxic.

Maybe they just don’t want to deal with parents who want their kids to be cared for at a high-quality child care while they work or the parents who can’t afford the rising tuition for their children’s education and training after high school.

Maybe they don’t want to discuss it.

But we should ask them: why prioritize tax cuts and hurt our state?

If I didn’t have a good answer, I wouldn’t want to have to answer these questions either.


DEQ to expand testing to other fluorinated compounds; Chemours neighbors complain of water making their hands “sticky”

Joan Jackson lives near the Chemours plant. Although the family well did not test above the health goal for three fluorinated compounds, her water “feels different.” “I despise putting my hands in it,” she told state officials. (Photos: Lisa Sorg)

Joan Jackson and her husband, Lawrence, have lived a mile and half from the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant for about 40 years. They’ve relied on a 70-foot well for their water — water that hasn’t felt  right for some time.

Although state tests showed the Jacksons’ well tested below the health advisory goal for GenX and older fluorinated compounds, PFOA and PFAS, there is something amiss, Joan Jackson said.

“I despise putting my hands in it,” she told state environmental officials at a public meeting in Robeson County last night. “It leaves your hands sticky and nasty feeling. I want to know what it is.”

“We’ve heard other people say their water feels different,” replied Michael Scott, director of the state Division of Waste Management. And when granulated activated carbon filters have been placed on their wells, Scott added, residents have reported the water felt normal again.

Stories like these, as well as new scientific information about fluorinated compounds, have prompted state and federal officials to broaden to the scope of potential health effects from this family of chemicals. The EPA underscored that point at a national summit last week, said Assistant DEQ Secretary Sheila Holman, among state officials who attended the event.

“It’s not advisable to solely evaluate compounds one at a time, but cumulatively,” Holman said.

This federal recommendation echoes what scientists, including NC State University professor Detlef Knappe and UNC Wilmington professor Larry Cahoon, have long been advising. Last summer, Cahoon spoke at several public events about the “toxic cocktail” of fluorinated compounds in the Cape Fear.

Knappe co-discovered GenX in the Cape Fear River and in Wilmington’s drinking water supply. He and other members of the state’s Science Advisory Board have also discussed the problem of how fluorinated compounds behave when mixed, since several of the legacy contaminants, such as C8, can cause cancer.

The state has set a provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion for GenX in drinking water. The EPA has established a provisional health goal of 70 parts per trillion for the combination of PFOA and PFAS in drinking water. Neither goal is legally enforceable.

The state Science Advisory Board could recommend “tweaks” to the GenX provisional health goal as early as its June 18 meeting, Holman said.

In addition, Scott said the state plans to ask Chemours to retest wells that previously showed levels of GenX between 100 and 139 ppt.

Lawrence Jackson, husband of Joan, demonstrates to state environmental officials about how family towels don’t seem to absorb water. The Jackson’s well tested below the state’s health goal for three fluorinated compounds. It’s hard to draw a conclusion without further testing, but these compounds are used in waterproof materials, such as Gore-Tex.

Meanwhile, Scott of the Division of Waste Management said the state has begun testing a limited number of wells for other compounds. Chemours is conducting the bulk of the testing, though, with the state checking the company’s work.

St. Pauls, in Robeson County, lies about 25 miles south of the Chemours facility. But even that far away, GenX, PFOA and PFOS have been detected in drinking water wells. The Robeson County health department tested 39 drinking water wells — 36 private and three of them owned by the county. Thirty-five contained GenX, albeit below the provisional health goal. Four were non-detect.

One well, though, tested above the goal for GenX, at 232 ppt.

Another sample, showed 1,500 ppt for the combination of PFOA and PFOS, far above the EPA’s recommendation of 70 ppt.

These compounds are likely traveling through the air, which transports the chemicals far from their source. The state is requiring Chemours to reduce and eventually eliminate, emissions of fluorinated compounds from its stacks. The company plans to install carbon beds, which could reduce emissions by 40 percent. Updated scrubbers could remove the chemicals by up to 70 percent.

We've heard other people say their water feels different Click To Tweet

And by late 2019 or early 2020, Chemours is scheduled to install thermal oxiders, which could reduce the contamination by 99 percent. These oxiders destroy the compounds by intense heat, upward of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

That time frame is still too long for residents who rely on bottled water for cooking and drinking. Scott said state officials have told Chemours they “want a plan for permanent water lines” to be extended — and paid for by the company — to affected well owners.

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Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

State budget: DEQ still snubbed, plus Jordan Lake rules delayed again and an odd line item for Charlotte

The state budget: Stingy (again) toward DEQ (Creative Commons)

The state budget, having secretly curdled inside Republican bill writers for several weeks, was finally served to the public last night just before 9 p.m. At 748 pages long — including the conference report-– and weighing more than a pound, the financial blueprint for the next fiscal year spoils most hopes of  environmental protection for North Carolinians.

Republicans tweaked the GenX portion of the bill, which had already been divulged in the Water Safety Act. But the the minor tinkering did nothing to address perennial underfunding of the Department of Environmental Quality. Conservative lawmakers still snubbed the agency, appropriating $2.3 million for long overdue water and permitting projects. Lest that sound like a significant figure, over the past seven years, lawmakers have cut DEQ’s budget so deeply that $2.3 million is the equivalent of finding $20 in a winter coat pocket. Nice to have, but it won’t go far.

This section of the bill does remove the unfunded mandate lawmakers had saddled DEQ with: to develop a monitoring, remediation and corrective action plan for fluorinated compounds in public and private water supplies. That project — on its face, prudent and essential — disappeared because lawmakers refused to fund it.

Instead, the NC Collaboratory, a think tank headquartered at UNC Chapel Hill, received nearly three times that amount, raking in $5 million to essentially do what DEQ is statutorily charged with doing to rein in emerging contaminants — but without the regulatory authority. The Collaboratory, run by rainmakers Brad Ives, a former assistant secretary for DENR (now DEQ), and Jeffrey Warren, the former research director for Sen. Phil Berger, did take a “hit” in that its original appropriation in the Water Safety Act was $8 million. (The Collaboratory got another $1 million to analyze water quality issues in the Haw River and to continue its analysis in Jordan Lake.)

The GenX part of the Water Safety Act, as Policy Watch reported last week, contains several legal and constitutional pitfalls regarding the governor’s power that the budget only partially addresses. The Environmental Management Commission is designated as the rulemaking authority, wise, because that’s the EMC’s role. Several procedural changes attempt to circumvent the potential for a prolonged contested case appeal, should Chemours disagree with the governor’s shut down of its facility.

The bill does try to confront the serious legal chain of custody issues that outsourcing data collection and analysis to the university system presents, but it’s hardly foolproof. Somewhere, Chemours lawyers are lighting cigars.

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