Civil rights complaint takes aim at North Carolina poultry farm regulations
Jul 24, 2023
The Charlotte Observer
A lawsuit filed against North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality alleges the state's lack of regulations around poultry farms disproportionately hurts people of color.
The single biggest change in food over the last 50 years is the conversion of America's small- and medium-sized farms into massive industrial factories designed to raise, contain, and slaughter animals as efficiently and inexpensively as possible.
The Charlotte Observer
North Carolina's failure to regulate poultry farms has endangered the environment and jeopardized human health, leaving people of color to suffer disproportionate impacts from the waste, a new federal civil rights complaint alleges.
Environmental regulators here don't issue permits for poultry farms or regularly inspect their barns, which can stretch as long as two football fields and house as many as 40,000 birds.
They don't alert neighbors when a farm is coming to a community or monitor where all the poultry waste goes. State environmental regulators don't even know where most of the farms are. North Carolina agriculture officials keep that information confidential.
The new federal complaint, filed with the EPA by nonprofit groups and North Carolina residents, notes that poultry farms in North Carolina are "deemed permitted," meaning they don't have to pass through any environmental approvals before construction. In recent years, the business has grown rapidly across the state and is now North Carolina's largest agricultural industry.
The lack of permitting punishes Black, Latino and American Indian residents, the complaint alleges.
A recent investigation by The Charlotte Observer and The Raleigh News & Observer found some 4,700 poultry farms in 79 North Carolina counties. An estimated 230,000 people live within a half mile of a farm, the distance odor from the manure can travel.
Researchers elsewhere have found that living near poultry farms increases the risk of acquiring pneumonia and decreases the value of homes.
The Title VI complaint focuses on three eastern North Carolina counties — Robeson, Duplin and Sampson. Combined, the three counties are home to about 850 poultry farms, data show.
The complaint argues that the counties are among the state's most diverse and have experienced a disproportionate growth in poultry facilities in recent years, resulting in threats to health and quality of life.
The complaint alleges that the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality's failure to adequately regulate poultry farms violates the civil rights of people living nearby. It also argues that by not permitting poultry farms, DEQ is unable to assess their impact on the environment.
Limited public information about poultry farms prevents state regulators from assessing the cumulative environmental impacts that neighborhoods around them feel, said Christophe Courchesne, interim senior attorney of the Environmental Justice Clinic.
The Environmental Justice Clinic at Vermont Law and Graduate School filed the complaint April 19 on behalf of Lumber River Waterkeeper Jefferson Currie; Donna Chavis, a Robeson County environmental justice advocate; and Friends of the Earth.
The EPA has six months to decide if it has the authority to require N.C.'s DEQ to change its permitting process, as clinic officials are asking.
The justice clinic is one of the few law school programs devoted to environmental justice — combining civil rights with the environment. It previously worked on a 2014 Title VI complaint looking at North Carolina's hog farm industry.
"DEQ's failure to adequately regulate by creating this massive loophole — deemed permitted for dry litter poultry — has allowed for this explosion of these facilities in some of the poorest and least white, most racially diverse areas in North Carolina," Clara Derby, a University of Vermont Law School Environmental Justice Clinic student, told The News & Observer.
DEQ officials declined to comment on the complaint Friday, saying they had not yet seen it.
In their investigation into the industry last year, the Observer and the N&O found:
"The rapid growth is insane," said Larry Baldwin, North Carolina CAFO Coordinator for the Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit group. "From the air, or even from the ground, we can see one being built today and going back the following day, there's two more down the road or close by. And the lack of permitting is allowing that to happen uncontrolled."
The new complaint alleges that poultry farms operate in "a unique regulatory gap" because they are the only kind of animal feeding operation exempt from permitting requirements and regulatory oversight.
At the same time, the complaint says, poultry farms are the single largest contributor to excess nutrient pollution in the state's waterways.
"In essence, North Carolina dry litter poultry facilities operate on an honor system," the complaint states.
North Carolina is the only state in which dry litter poultry operations — by far the most common type of chicken and turkey farms — are categorically "deemed permitted," the complaint says. South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi have all put in place some form of permitting, the complaint notes.
Some North Carolina lawmakers also want to see the state's industrial poultry farms regulated more aggressively.
A bill introduced last month by Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, would require farms with 30,000 or more birds to apply for environmental permits. It would also prohibit the construction of industrial animal operations in floodplains and require a sweeping study of the environmental and public health impacts of poultry waste.
But industry leaders have argued that there's no need for additional regulation. Bob Ford, executive director of the N.C. Poultry Federation, declined to comment on the complaint against DEQ.
Industry leaders have previously noted that they’ve put in place voluntary setbacks designed to ensure farms aren't built too close to homes. The federation's guidelines say that poultry farms shouldn't be built closer than 1,000 feet to an occupied residence.
North Carolina's agricultural industry has been the subject of several other federal civil rights complaints in recent years.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires any agency that accepts federal funds to act without discriminating toward race, color or national origin.
The EPA is currently investigating a 2021 complaint that alleged the N.C. DEQ's approval of permits allowing methane to be captured from hog lagoons violated the civil rights of Black, Latino and Native American residents of Duplin and Sampson counties.
And in 2014, environmental groups alleged that DEQ's general permit process for hog farms overburdened Black, Hispanic and Native American people in Duplin, Robeson and Sampson counties. A 2018 settlement of that complaint included the development of North Carolina's first environmental justice mapping tool, a temporary ambient air quality monitoring effort in Duplin County and some additional surface water monitoring.
As part of the 2018 settlement, DEQ had to re-affirm its commitment to protecting civil rights by making sure its programs and policies didn't result in uneven burdens. That statement "rings hollow" in the face of the poultry industry's continued growth, according to the newest complaint.
"DEQ has no comprehensive means for evaluating the dry litter poultry industry's growing disparate impact and is therefore unable to integrate better protections for human health, vulnerable communities, the environment or civil rights," the complaint states.
The poultry complaint draws on many of the same ideas as the 2014 complaint centered on the hog industry, said Sophia Hampton, a Vermont Law Environmental Justice Clinic student who worked on the complaint.
"The situation is almost more extreme, though, because there aren't even that many regulations. … There's just a gaping hole in the regulatory scheme," Hampton said.
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