Changing climate brings new concerns about NC's big hog and poultry farms
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Two human-driven trends are coming together to create new environmental worries in North Carolina. The first is the growing number of big hog and poultry farms, known as "concentrated animal feeding operations," or CAFOs. The other is climate change, which brings rising sea levels and more intense storms and flooding.
Together, they're a recipe for trouble, according to a recent study by the Environmental Working Group.
The Washington, D.C.-based organization said map data show that more than 150 of North Carolina's 7,352 hog and poultry farms are in or near floodplains, and are in danger of being inundated. That could send untreated sewage and bacteria into waterways, potentially affecting public health and drinking water supplies. That's what happened during Hurricane Florence in 2018. And the risk grows greater with climate change, said Anne Schechinger of the Environmental Working Group.
"The facilities in these floodplains are going to be more and more likely to flood as we see climate change intensifying," Schechinger said. "We know that facilities right now that are in 100- to 500-year floodplains (are) going to be flooded more often than every 100 to 500 years."
Schechinger said floodplain science doesn't take into account the changing climate, because it's based on historical events instead of forecasts of future events.
Large hog and chicken farms typically spread manure on nearby farm fields. "When it comes to climate change, we know we're going to be seeing more extreme precipitation events, more hurricanes," Schechinger said. "So we're also going to be seeing more of the manure and the manure contaminants washing off farm fields and getting into waterways."
EWG's study identified 59 hog farms and 97 poultry farms in floodplains or in a 100-foot buffer around floodplains in North Carolina. They're across the state, including all the counties surrounding Charlotte. Most are in five eastern North Carolina counties: Duplin, Wayne, Pender, Craven and Robeson.
EPA reviewing its rules
The EPA is in the midst of reviewing its rules for discharges from meat and poultry farms, in part because of concerns raised by environmental groups. The agency must conduct a detailed study before it decides what, if any, changes to make.
The North Carolina hog industry opposes the EPA study and says the current rules are adequate. "The current guidelines and CAFO rule took more than a decade of research, review and legal action to come to fruition. It was a comprehensive effort to protect 'waters of the United States.' We believe the current guidelines are working as intended. Discharges from swine facilities are rare," Roy Lee Lindsey, CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council, said in a statement.
Lindsey said North Carolina has closed 43 hog farms, and many more hog waste lagoons in floodplains, through existing floodplain buyout and lagoon removal programs. He said the number of hog farms still at risk is much lower than the EWG's figure. "An estimated 15 to 20 hog farms remain in the 500-year floodplain and we continue to seek state funding to close these lagoons to further reduce the possible impact during record-breaking storm events," Lindsey said.
Schechinger says the EWG would like to see the buyout program expanded.
"That program is very rarely funded. And the last buyout that happened was actually in 2018. We really think that that buyout program should be funded more, and we should be buying out more of these facilities, so we have less in the floodplain," she said.
Meanwhile, poultry farms face far fewer regulations and have no such buyout program, she said.
"So we think that there really needs to be a lot more state oversight of poultry facilities. It's just so poorly regulated and … the state doesn't really know how many facilities are even in the state and how much manure is produced and where it's going," Schechinger said.
And the EWG would like to see a buyout program for poultry farms in and near floodplains, she said.
North Carolina has no state permitting or inspection system for poultry farms. The best estimates of the number of farms come from private sources, such as the EWG, which has been tracking large animal feeding operations nationwide since 2016. EWG currently estimates that the state has 4,863 poultry operations with 544 million chickens and turkeys.
In December, the Raleigh News & Observer did its own study for a series of articles called "Big Poultry" and put the number at 4,700. As the paper reported: "Despite producing billions of pounds of waste collectively, poultry farmers are not required to apply for environmental permits or submit to environmental inspections. Neighbors complain about odors and other nuisances, but local leaders have no power to limit where farms are built."
Read more about the EWG study: "New EWG research finds many North Carolina factory farms are at risk of flooding".
See a list of hog and poultry farms in floodplains in North Carolina on the EWG website.