agriculture, Environment

From the air, a view of hog farms improperly spraying waste on soaked fields; DEQ can’t access area to inspect

A hog farm in eastern North Carolina spraying waste from a lagoon on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. This practice violates permit regulations stipulating that waste can’t be applied to fields that are saturated. The sprayer is shown above the upper lagoon; at the top left of the frame, water is standing in the field. (Aerial photos: Lisa Sorg)

The number of hog lagoons at risk was updated from 80 to 110 at 4:16 p.m.

Flood damage from Hurricane Florence is jeopardizing roughly 110 of the state’s 3,300 hog lagoons, but there is another route for waste to leave these farms: runoff from the sprayfields.

Farmers routinely pump waste from the lagoons onto the fields, which they use to grow hay and other crops to feed livestock. But spraying waste on saturated agricultural land violates both EPA regulations and the terms of the state general permits under which North Carolina’s hog farms operate. When waste-laden water runs off these fields, it can contaminate nearby rivers, streams, wetlands or adjacent properties.

During a flyover of eastern North Carolina on Monday, Policy Watch observed at least two farms that were spraying waste from their hog lagoons, ostensibly to keep them from overflowing — an even more severe environmental disaster in its own right. From the air, it was unclear whether the farms were contracted with Smithfield or Prestage Farms. Riverkeepers reported at least a dozen more incidents of spraying, but Policy Watch has not been able to independently verify those accounts.

A Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman said state inspectors couldn’t yet get to the farms to follow up on their operations. The Fayetteville Regional Office, located downtown near Cross Creek, was evacuated. Regional offices in Washington and Wilmington are not fully functioning because of power outages and flooding.

It is also illegal to spray within 48 hours of the issuance of a hurricane watch or severe thunderstorm warning.

One of the controversies about waste application is whether it is a “nutrient management strategy” — a way to fertilize cropfields — or merely an expedient way to get rid of the waste. The waste can be applied only at “agronomic rates,” which are calculated by crop, soil type and other factors; the amounts are detailed in each farm’s nutrient waste management plan. “Land application is for crops to take up fertilizer,” said Michelle Nowlin, supervising attorney at the Duke University Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. “If the land is saturated, there’s no way the crops can take up the nutrients.”

Hog farms and their lagoons in eastern North Carolina, Sept. 17, 2018. The bottom lagoon appears inundated, but it’s unclear whether a breach has occurred.

After Hurricane Floyd, Nowlin, then an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, successfully sued the state environmental agency over how it allowed farms to spray their waste. As part of a settlement agreement, the state agreed it would prohibit spraying in the aftermath of a storm, Nowlin said. “If the state turns a blind eye, it’s in violation of that agreement,” she added.

The Coastal Plain is less than optimal for industrialized animal operations. Hurricanes and inland flooding imperil the animals themselves, as well as the lagoon-and-sprayfield method of waste management.

“Once again, as if we needed a reminder, the hurricane exposes the insanity of even allowing this type of production and waste disposal in the Coastal Plain,” Nowlin said. “But it’s an opportunity to think about new technologies, mandated in accordance with the state’s authority and what the industry can afford. They [the industry] is putting their costs on society. Can we afford the industry’s imposition of these costs?”

What to do with 5,500 dead hogs and 3.4 million dead chickens

The storm killed 5,500 of the roughly 9.3 million hogs housed in industrialized farms in North Carolina, and that number will likely increase as flood waters recede and reveal the carcasses.

Smithfield tried to stem the number of fatalities by transferring hogs from farms that were flooded in 1999 during Hurricane Floyd to operations outside that vulnerable area. Floyd was a catastrophic turning point for the hog industry; it killed an estimated 30,000 hogs and unleashed a 500-year flood, meaning the chances of such an event occurring in a given year is 1 in 500, or 0.2 percent.

However, Hurricane Florence outdid Floyd, with eastern rivers rising at least 5 feet from record levels. “It was new territory for the industry,” said Kraig Westerbeek, senior director of Smithfield Renewables and Hog Production Division Environmental Affairs.

Prestage Farms couldn’t be reached for comment.

The poultry industry sustained even greater losses: at least 3.4 million birds.

The NC Department of Agriculture has issued protocols for the disposal of animal carcasses, including buffer zones between the composting area and waterways and property lines. In some cases, the bodies can be deposited in landfills.

“One of the disconnects here is dealing with the mortalities,” Nowlin said. The disposal falls under not DEQ but the NC Department of Agriculture’s veterinary division, which focuses on preventing disease. “Where the animals are disposed and how,” is important, Nowlin added. If they are improperly disposed of, the decaying bodies can contaminate groundwater.

It takes about 28 days for a chicken carcass to decompose, and six months or more for larger animals.

This hog waste lagoon appears to have been spared.





agriculture, Environment, News

After Florence, the “unequal distribution of catastrophe” in North Carolina

A flooded neighborhood in Jacksonville. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Since Hurricane Florence dropped more than 30 inches of rain on parts of North Carolina, Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg has been dutifully tracking the environmental catastrophes — many of them, quite simply, predictable in nature.

But if you missed it, Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy authored an illuminating take Tuesday in The New Yorker on the environmental injustices made apparent by the storm, and its deleterious effect on agricultural operations in the state.

From The New Yorker:

It is unsettling, and maybe emblematic of many American lives today, to perch safely but uneasily on the edge of catastrophe. Rainfall in eastern North Carolina passed thirty inches during Hurricane Florence, cutting off the coastal city of Wilmington from road access, and this week the state’s rivers are swelling as they return the water to the Atlantic. The Neuse River is menacing Goldsboro, home of the Reverend William Barber’s congregation, and the Cape Fear River is swamping Fayetteville, near Fort Bragg. The storm has killed at least thirty-two people. It left my neighborhood in Durham, a hundred and forty miles inland, damp and ruffled by breezes. Warm humidity streaked the outside of air-conditioned windows with condensed water, and people stayed indoors watching weather updates.

But we prepared here—overprepared, even. The city of Durham shuttered its non-emergency offices last Thursday afternoon, and public schools closed throughout the Research Triangle. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke, where I teach, shut down classes for nearly a week and urged students to evacuate. Big-box stores were stripped of water, batteries, and other emergency supplies, and gas stations were empty. At home, we stockpiled jugs of water, dried fruit and canned beans, candles.

Disaster planning requires an accounting of everyday dependencies. How far can we drive if there is no gas for sale? Without electricity, how many hours of light do we have? If the stores aren’t restocked, when will we run out of food? Once our phones aren’t working, how many phone numbers do we actually know? How many of the people we know live within walking distance? As we pull the plug on one vital system after another, tasks that seemed straightforward—making a cup of coffee, or washing clothes—turn out to be a note in a technological symphony.

A recent study by the geologist Jan Zalasiewicz and twenty-four co-authors estimated the total weight of human infrastructure—buildings, roads, vehicles, intensely cultivated cropland—at thirty trillion tons, roughly three thousand tons for every human being. In 2013, Peter Haff, a Duke University earth scientist, reckoned that without this infrastructure, which he calls “the technosphere,” human population “would quickly decline toward its Stone Age base of no more than ten million.” You can relax that pessimism by an order of magnitude and still conclude that most of us would not survive outside our artificial habitat. We would be what Shakespeare’s King Lear calls “unaccommodated man”: a “poor, bare, forked animal.”

A “natural disaster,” then, is at least half non-natural, the product of a natural event and the infrastructure that it floods, shakes, or ignites. In North Carolina, much of that infrastructure is agricultural: over the past thirty years, the eastern part of the state has become the slaughterhouse of the East Coast. At least nine million pigs live here, mostly in “confined animal feeding operations” that contain thousands of animals apiece. Read more


Smithfield says expansion of Tar Heel facility behind closure of company’s Clayton plant

Smithfield ham (Photo: Amazon)

More than 100 Smithfield workers will lose their jobs at the company’s distribution center in Clayton, but an expansion of the Tar Heel plant, not ongoing nuisance lawsuits, are behind the facility’s closure.

Dennis Organ, senior vice president of supply chain and direct store delivery, issued a statement yesterday noting that the company has invested $100 million to expand the plant in Tar Heel, and 250 positions will be added as a result of the expansion.

Clayton employees will be offered positions at the Tar Heel operation and elsewhere, according to a company statement.

It’s unclear how many workers will transfer to Tar Heel, which is 80 miles south of Clayton.

Smithfield’s packaged meats division increased its profit this year — nearly 11 percent. But according to an August report to investors, WH Group, Smithfield’s China-based parent corporation noted that President Trump’s tariffs had dented profits in the US fresh pork segment. “Profits declined significantly due to an overabundant supply of meat in the market and trade tensions,” the report read.

Operating profit decreased by 3.8 percent in the US to $867 million, which the company attributed to inflation in wages and logistical costs.





agriculture, Courts & the Law, Environment

Appellate court ruling could funnel Smithfield agreement funds away from environmental protection

L-R Appellate Court Judges John Tyson, Phil Berger Jr, and Wanda Bryant (Photos: NC Court of Appeals)











Smithfield's payments weren't penalties, but voluntary contributions to burnish its image by working toward better waste management solutions Click To TweetFrancis X. De Luca can’t sue the state of North Carolina over an 18-year-old Smithfield agreement, the NC Court of Appeals ruled yesterday, but the former head of the conservative think tank nonetheless might have achieved his goal: To use the state constitution to siphon future settlement money away from environmental projects and toward public schools.

In a 2-1 decision, the appellate court ruled that there are legitimate questions about whether Smithfield’s annual payments constitute penalties for past bad behavior or voluntary contributions to help the environment.

Penalties go to a fund that then is disbursed to public schools. Voluntary payments can fund other projects.

De Luca and the New Hanover County Board of Education were the plaintiffs, but the court ruled De Luca does not have legal standing to sue. The decision, though, also sends the case and its core constitutional questions back to Wake County Superior Court for a new trial.

Judges John Tyson and Phil Berger Jr., were in the majority; Judge Wanda Bryant dissented.

The Smithfield agreement was a deal brokered in 2000 among then-attorney general Mike Easley, the pork producer, and its subsidiaries to compensate for the environmental damage caused by industrialized hog farms. From 1995 to 2000 waste lagoons, not all of them Smithfield’s, “had spilled millions of gallons of waste into North Carolina waterways,” according to court documents, “contaminating surface waters and killing aquatic life, while seepage from waste lagoons impacted groundwater supplies.”

Under the terms of the agreement, Smithfield pays $1 per hog it owns in North Carolina each year, up to $2 million annually. The agreement is valid through 2025. The payments, testified several officials in affidavits, were not intended as penalties for wrongdoing, but rather “voluntary contributions” that the corporation paid in order to burnish its image by “working toward better waste management solutions.” (Smithfield has not made any meaningful progress toward those solutions. That issue is central to the hog nuisance lawsuits being heard in federal district court.)

Read more


Gag order lifted for hog nuisance trials involving Smithfield


(Photo of inside hog barns from trial exhibits)

Plaintiffs and defendants involved in high-profile hog nuisance lawsuits can speak more freely to the media now that a gag order has been lifted, according to a ruling issued today by US District Court Senior Judge Earl Britt.

On June 27, during the second trial, Britt had issued a gag order prohibiting parties involved in the lawsuits, including potential witnesses, from speaking to the media unless the issues were of public record, such as scheduling of hearings and court filings. According to today’s ruling, “after considering alternate solutions, such as jury sequestration, the court issued the order to protect the integrity of the trial process.”

The reason, Britt ruled at the time, was the potential for jurors, both present and future, to be tainted by trial publicity. Earlier in June, one juror had found media coverage of the NC Farm Act, legislation that ultimately all but eliminated the right to sue hog farms for nuisance. Smithfield attorneys had moved for a mistrial, but after Britt queried the jurors, he determined that they could deliberate the case without bias.

There was extensive publicity about the trial, not just from the media but also blogs and online commentary by the NC Pork Council and NC Farm Families, which advocates for Smithfield.  The NC Department of Agriculture also held several “Stand Up for Farmers” rallies across from the Legislative Building.

From today’s ruling:

” … such publicity included press releases and information disseminated on various websites and blogs, including one registered to the subsidiary of defense counsel’s law firm; an article intimidating a potential witness through her Facebook feed; and public rallies. Further, likely as a result of the significant publicity, plaintiffs’ counsel received a direct threat by a member of the public via email, which the court referred for further investigation.”


Smithfield, the NC Pork Council and similar farming groups had complained that the gag order prevented them from countering criticisms lodged by environmental advocates and other parties not involved in the trial. The Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press also opposed the order on First Amendment grounds. On Aug. 9, the plaintiffs also filed a motion asking Britt to vacate the gag order. Britt also considered the fact that the next trial is not scheduled until November.