When a hurricane knocks on North Carolina’s front door, as Dorian is today, the seas start to churn, the winds begin to whip and the air Down East stinks worse than usual.
We often associate the pre-storm stench with swine farmers spraying their fields with hog waste in order to lower levels in the open-pit lagoons. But the poultry industry also presents an environmental threat, both because of the number of birds, an estimated 515 million in North Carolina — compared with 9 million hogs — and because it is largely unregulated.
The News & Observer published a story last week about a policy change at the NC Department of Environmental Quality that has resulted in a sharp increase in the number of violations based on complaints lodged against concentrated animal feeding operations: In the six months from November 2018 to April 2019, the agency found 62 violations — twice as many as had been publicly documented in the previous 10 years.
(The article, written by Barry Yeoman, was produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and The Guardian, where it first appeared.)
The story included a list of the 37 farms cited by environmental regulators. Of these, 12 are swine, including one farm owned and operated by Murphy-Brown, the world’s largest pork producer and which contracts with most individual farmers in the state.
Four of the cited farms raise cattle, one is a horse farm — the esteemed Tryon International Equestrian Center in Polk County — and 21 are poultry operations.
The poultry operations are not apparent from the list. However, these farms had no permit number, which indicates they are “deemed permitted.” And most poultry farms fall under this classification. “Deemed permitted” means that a facility is considered to have a permit — and paradoxically, to be in compliance — even though it has not received an individual permit for its construction or operation.
These “deemed permitted” farms use a “dry litter” method of managing their waste, which supposedly reduces the ammonia odor and risk for pathogens and flies. But poultry farms, especially gigantic operations housing millions of birds, do stink, even if the manure is dry. And when the waste is spread on fields it can wash into nearby streams, just like manure from swine farms can.
Farms that use “wet litter” disposal methods are required to have a Division of Water Resources permit. Only 20 poultry farms in the state report disposing of wet litter.
Because there are no permits for dry litter operations, there are no statewide records of where the operations are located, of the exact number of birds or the amount of waste. Only when a natural disaster occurs, such as Hurricane Florence, and the industry releases the number of birds killed — 3.4 million — does the public begin to get an inkling of the enormity of these operations.
The Waterkeeper Alliance has estimated the number of birds in North Carolina at 515 million, based on the number of barns constructed. The Alliance, local waterkeepers, and the Environmental Working Group have been tracking these barns — building permits are public record — and calculated that since Hurricane Florence a year ago, 62 new farms have opened throughout North Carolina, with 519 barns. Each barn can hold at least 35,000 birds.
|Basin||New operations||No. of Barns||Estimated no. of birds*|
|Lumber River||17||320||11. 2 million|
|Upper and Lower Yadkin River||40||160||5.6 million|
Sources: Lumber Riverkeeper, Yadkin Riverkeeper, Cape Fear River Watch and Broad River Alliance.
The lack of regulation over these poultry farms came up in the legislature earlier this session, when Sen. Harper Peterson, a Democrat from New Hanover County, proposed in a committee a benign recommendation to study the pros and cons of greater oversight. Sen. Brent Jackson, a farmer representing Duplin, Johnston and Sampson counties, put the kibosh on Peterson’s notion, claiming the poultry industry needs no further regulation because it’s in compliance. How would we know for sure? Jackson didn’t explain.
As for the swine operations, names of the farms with violations can be found by cross-referencing the permit numbers with the entire DEQ database of permitted farms. One of the cited farms is owned and operated by Murphy-Brown; the other farms are owned by individuals who are contracted by giant pork producers. Those contract farmers are required to adhere to strict operational requirements imposed by the companies, down to the type and amount of feed the pigs receive.
|Permit No.||Farm name||Farm owner||Animal||Type of farm||No. animals||County||Street||City|
|AWI640074||Harrison Pork Productions, Inc.||Willie Harrison||Swine||Swine - Feeder to Finish||9600||Nash||4985 Harrison Rd||Castalia|
|AWI750004||Tryon International Equestrian Center Facility||Tryon Equestrian Properties LLC||Horses||Horses - Horses||400||Polk||John Shehan Rd||Tryon|
|AWS090173||Bull Creek Farms, LLC Farm||Bull Creek Farms LLC||Swine||Swine - Feeder to Finish||11000||Bladen||353 Avery Rd||E Fayetteville|
|AWS090173||Bull Creek Farms, LLC Farm||Bull Creek Farms LLC||Swine||Swine - Wean to Feeder||4400||Bladen||353 Avery Rd||E Fayetteville|
|AWS100021||Carolina Bay Farms , LLC||Maguire Farm LLC||Swine||Swine - Farrow to Wean||4000||Brunswick||2551 Exxum Rd Nw||Ash|
|AWS100037||C Bay Nursery||C Bay Nursery LLC||Swine||Swine - Wean to Feeder||6400||Brunswick||2347 Exum Rd Nw||Ash|
|AWS240015||Owen Farm, Inc.||John Owen||Swine||Swine - Feeder to Finish||2940||Columbus||7855 Old Stage Rd||Riegelwood|
|AWS310400||Farm #20 / 3620||Murphy-Brown LLC||Swine||Swine - Farrow to Wean||2000||Duplin||226 Johnny B Tann Ln||Faison|
|AWS310404||Mike Kennedy Farm||Mike Kennedy||Swine||Swine - Feeder to Finish||2000||Duplin||345 Kennedy Ln||Pink Hill|
|AWS310413||Brown Farm||R Lanier||Swine||Swine - Feeder to Finish||3300||Duplin||1061 E NC 24 Hwy||Kenansville|
|AWS820624||Sinclair Farms||Carlton Sinclair||Swine||Swine - Farrow to Wean||1250||Sampson||5151 Keener Rd||Clinton|
However, some farms with violations aren’t listed in the DEQ database nor on the agency’s map of permitted animal feeding operations. Given their location, western North Carolina, and the prefix on the permit number –AWD — these are likely dairy or beef cattle.