Unchecked growth of industrial animal farms spurs long fight for environmental justice in Eastern NC

As large-scale hog and poultry industries continue to grow in eastern North Carolina, local residents push back against decades of air and water pollution.  

by Melba Newsome  October 20, 2021

On a Sunday evening in July, about 30 residents from around Sampson County gathered at Byrd’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Rose Hill, about 20 miles from the county seat of Clinton, to hear about a soon-to-be-constructed methane pipeline.

For many, it is simply another in a long list of Smithfield Foods’ intrusions into their lives in Duplin and Sampson counties over which they seem to have little sway. As they sat masked and socially distanced in the pews, the residents rose one by one to recount the way their lives have been forever changed since Smithfield built thousands of hog houses in their communities.

The overwhelming majority of the state’s 2,100 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are located in Duplin and Sampson counties where hogs are said to outnumber people 40 to one. Meanwhile, the hogs are being outnumbered by poultry, an industry that’s been expanding in the region.

The residents, mostly people of color, talk about what life is like as a result. The disruption to their overall quality of life, deafening noise from tractor-trailers night and day. They liken the putrid smell from the farms to that of a decomposing body or rotten eggs. It seems to arise out of nowhere and traps them inside with the windows closed and the air conditioning going full blast 24/7.

These living conditions disproportionately impact Black people in the eastern part of the state.

Nearly 40 years ago, Ben Chavis had just finished leading a protest over the state’s decision to dump cancer-causing chemicals in a poor Black community in Warren County when a state trooper pulled him over and arrested him for driving too slow.

“This is environmental racism,” Chavis yelled, as the jail door slammed shut. Those words, credited with birthing the environmental justice movement, continue to resonate, as people of color  in eastern North Carolina face ongoing environmental injustices .

More than just a nuisance

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the long-standing health and health care disparities that communities of color face across the state. In eastern North Carolina, the adverse effects of living close to industrial farms are well-documented. A study conducted by the Environmental Health Scholars at Duke University School of Medicine and published in the NC Medical Journal found that communities located near hog CAFOs had higher all-cause and infant mortality, resulting in more deaths due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis and septicemia. These residents also experience higher rates of hospital admission, emergency room visits and low birth weight infants.

Nitrogen from the unlined pits of hog waste seeps into waterways and contributes to groundwater and well pollution. Ever since an industrial hog farm was established a quarter of a mile from her house in the unincorporated community of Waycross, Elouise Stokes Jacobs hasn’t been able to drink her own water.

“In the late 1990s, Murphy’s hog farm tested my water and it was so bad, they put a new well down which lasted about 10 years,” said Jacobs. “I went back to them because we’re having the same problems all over again. They told me they weren’t gonna do anything else about my water, that I had to do it on my own.

“The county said there weren’t enough people on my road to put in water. How is it that we pay taxes and don’t have none of the services that should be provided to people?“

Raising a small number of hogs was a side business to growing tobacco and cotton for most families in the area before industrial hog farms began swamping this region. Thirty years ago, there were 22,000 farmers and about 2 million pasture-raised hogs. Now, there are over 9 million hogs, mostly raised by contract growers for Smithfield Foods.

Since Smithfield opened the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse on the banks of the Cape Fear River in the town of Tar Heel 30 years ago, the people who live in these communities have been asked to shoulder the environmental burdens without sharing in the economic benefits. The residents have waged a three decades-long struggle for environmental and health justice and laws and regulations that protect them.

A bird’s eye view

Reporter Melba Newsome and Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear riverkeeper, recently took a flight over parts of eastern NC to get a better view of the sprawling industrial hog and poultry farms. Photo credit: Melba Newsome

Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear riverkeeper, has spent more than a decade trying to protect the Lower Cape Fear River from nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals discharged from CAFOs, a job made exponentially more difficult by industry-friendly regulations and lax enforcement. On a recent Friday morning flight from Wilmington to the industrial farms in Duplin and Sampson counties, the sprawling CAFOs were in plain sight.

At ground level, the CAFOs are largely hidden by towering rows of corn or dense forests, but at 2,000 feet up, they are everywhere — uniformed rows of elongated, white barns with steel-roofs glinting in the sunlight.

Inside the buildings, there are thousands of hogs being mechanically fed and watered, livestock that will never see the light of day except when being moved from one grow facility to the next. Outside, there is little visible activity, except for the automated irrigation system showering the fields with hog waste — teeming with bacteria that turns the slurry hot pink — pumped from the football field-sized lagoons.

Move over Boss Hog

These days, it’s not just the hog farms. Flying over Duplin and Sampson counties, you are likely to see an industrial poultry farm situated near a church or school because they are quickly outnumbering swine farms.

A year ago, there were about 4,800 factory poultry farms in the state. Now, that number stands at around 5,700. North Carolina is the second highest poultry producer in the country after Georgia and poultry is the top agricultural industry in the state. And it happened with virtually no oversight.

Bottom of Form

The state raises over 500 million chickens and turkeys a year. Yet, you don’t hear nearly as much about it because the poultry industry has made a concerted effort to avoid what it views as the mistakes made by the hog industry — being too high profile. In fact, the industry is not only largely unregulated, state legislators even prevent the disclosure of the location of the poultry operations. Even the environmental regulators don’t know the precise locations of most of the farms.

At first blush, the poultry farms are indistinguishable from swine farms until you realize there are no lagoons. While the hogs are jammed into houses by the hundreds, each poultry barn contains 30,000 to 35,000 birds. Dry litter is scooped up by tractors and stacked in massive piles outside on the berms to be later used as fertilizer. Burdette, the riverkeeper, pointed out several violations from the airplane.

“The rule is you can’t leave dry litter uncovered for more than 15 days, because every time it rains all that stuff is just running off,” Burdette says, pointing to the massive piles at the edge of a poultry farm. “We’ve seen piles left uncovered for months and months, so they totally disregard those rules. But even those tarps don’t really stop anything. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.”

Under current state law, any new or expanding swine farm must eliminate discharge into nearby waterways, and substantially reduce soil and groundwater pollution, ammonia emissions, odor and pathogens. But no such restrictions exist on poultry operations, although they are a dangerous source of air and water pollution and a disruption to the neighboring communities.

An aerial view of an industrial poultry farm with piles of litter next to it in eastern North Carolina. Photo credit: Cape Fear River Watch

The largely unregulated poultry industry has come into the same eastern North Carolina communities already experiencing disproportionate impacts from large hog operations. Robeson County largely escaped the industrial hog farming industry. But an analysis by the Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance found that, since 2012, the estimated number of chickens and turkeys has increased by about 24 million in Robeson County.

State Democrats introduced legislation this spring that would require commercial chicken farms to submit waste management plans so the public would be aware of what happens to the litter, but the bill went nowhere. That’s hardly surprising since, two years earlier, a bill proposed by former state Sen. Harper Peterson (D-Wilmington) to study the environmental and human health impacts of dry-litter poultry farms failed after strong opposition.

The fight for environmental justice

Duplin County officials have given residents plenty of reasons to distrust the cleanliness of their groundwater. The Mt. Zion AME Church in the Taylor’s Bridge community is surrounded by massive hog farms. For several years, the health department posted a warning on the door of the church that the water contained high levels of nitrates. The small rural church of fewer than 100 members was forced to spend nearly $4,000 to dig a new 225-foot well to avoid the nitrates caused when animal waste in the soil leaches into the groundwater.

“Our only fault was being too close to a hog farm,” says pastor Jimmy Melvin. “The congregation has had to invest finances and time and energy towards a problem we did not create.”

Smithfield denies it is responsible for the church’s water problem. However, in July, the company and the NC Pork Council sent a letter to the pastor asking to meet with him to discuss the issue.

Mt. Zion AME Church in Duplin County. Photo credit: Melba Newsome

Sherri White-Williamson, environmental justice policy director at the NC Conservation Network, was born and raised in Sampson County. After more than a decade in Washington, D.C., in the Office of Environmental Justice for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she enrolled at the Vermont Law School and earned a law degree and a Master of Energy Regulation. She returned to North Carolina in 2018 and launched the Environmental Justice Community Action Network (EJ CAN) to focus on the many environmental burdens for the county’s residents of color, particularly a lack of safe drinking water for those who don’t have access to municipal utilities.

Working with faculty and students from Appalachian State University, the group has provided free water testing for high levels of nitrates for more than 150 homes, while mapping the location of the industrial animal farms and landfill in proximity to the highest levels of groundwater pollution. White-Williamson says Duplin County has refused to extend municipal utilities to those rural communities.

“Their rationale is that they’re using the money in the fastest-growing parts of the county along I-95 and I-40,” White-Williamson said. “That means that most of that water money is going to predominantly white parts of the county. They need to have at least 10 homes per mile to qualify for municipal water. That’s a tough marker to meet for rural communities.”

For decades, there has been a schism between the mainstream conservation movement, led primarily by affluent whites, and the environmental racism movement that focused on the concerns of more basic needs and concerns of low wealth communities.

However, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of color has put a spotlight on the historical and present-day injustices that left people of color exposed to far greater environmental health hazards. People in this part of the state increasingly see the fights against climate change and racial injustice as linked.

An aerial view of an industrial poultry farm with piles of litter next to it in eastern North Carolina. Photo credit: Cape Fear River Watch

Redlining and segregation forced communities of color into flood-prone and undesirable neighborhoods. Then, they argue, systemic racism allowed their communities to become dumping grounds for toxic waste and inundated with these high-polluting industries, the effects of which were exacerbated by climate change.

“One of the things that was documented early on and has been shown time and again is that members of disenfranchised minorities — including Black, LatinX and indigenous people — are much more likely to live near one of these CAFOs than if you are a white person even if you take money out of the picture,” said Ryke Longest, co-director of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.

“This becomes, what I would call, an issue of environmental racism because these are located and expanded in places where the surrounding community did not have the political voice and ability to stop it.”

This two-part series was supported by a journalism fellowship from the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative.

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Melba Newsome is an award-winning freelance writer with more than 20 years’ experience reporting on news and features. Her feature credits in many prominent publications including the New York Times, Bloomberg…

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