All eyes have been on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, but it is by no means the only city where the poorest residents face environmental damage and lax government oversight.
Further to the South, in rural North Carolina, another, less-known battle is taking shape. This crisis involves the lasting impact of pollution from large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) housing pigs. Now a group of citizens is claiming that the state’s $3 billion pork industry is disposing of its waste in a manner that disproportionately and negatively affects residents of color, and that the negotiating efforts are being stalled by the pork industry.
In 2014, the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights and the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice filed a complaint with the state’s Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which requires that recipients of federal funds ensure their actions don’t harm individuals or communities based on race. Since then, the community groups have been negotiating with state regulators, but the process broke down earlier this month, when those regulators brought pork industry representatives to a mediation session which was supposed to be confidential.
Last fall, Ann Edmondson, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Pork Council, told North Carolina Health News that it doesn’t see its operations as endangering the health of nearby residents.
“More than 80 percent of North Carolina’s hog farms are owned and operated by individual farm families, almost all of whom live in close proximity to their swine or in communities where their swine operations are located,” she said, “It strains credibility to believe our hog farmers are risking the health of their own families, along with their neighbors’ health, in order to make a living.”
We spoke with Elizabeth Haddix, attorney at the Center for Civil Rights, to hear more about her take on the process.
Can you describe the hog farms in the area where your clients live?
In the late 80s and early 90s, these CAFOs began to come into existence. The pork industry was very quickly monopolized by Smithfield, which bought up a lot of farms that were historically owned by Black farmers—which is part of the irony here, because of the disproportionate impact on the Black community. A lot of Black farmers lost their land at that time to these industrial operations. What they do is contract with local farmers, and everything is owned by the integrator, Smithfield, which is now owned by the Chinese corporation, WH Group.
The contractors have no control over what feed, antibiotics, etc. are given to speed up production, but they do own the waste from the hogs. And one hog creates a lot of waste—up to three times what a human creates.
The hog waste disposal system was instituted as this antiquated “lagoon” and “spray field” [approach]. The hogs are kept in cement houses on slatted floors, and the waste goes down through the slats and into a tank, and it gets pumped out into an open pit. All of these open pits were unlined. Supposedly, the solids and liquids separate naturally, and the waste is then pumped through these sprayers and sprayed onto nearby agricultural fields. All of this is supposed to be regulated by North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DEQ).
There’s a moratorium on the lagoons [as of 2007]—you can’t build any more—but for the ones that are in operation now, there aren’t any incentives to stop using this form of waste disposal.