Proposed state animal waste rules draw scrutiny, concern

Proposed state animal waste rules draw scrutiny, concern

- in Environment, Top Story
Illustration by Nelle Dunlap

In the world of state environmental law, there is high-profile legislation whose hubbub, sometimes worthy of Shakespeare, is broadcast at the General Assembly. And there are lesser-known rules – think of them as off-off-Broadway plays – that are debated at sparsely attended public hearings beyond the view of a camera. Yet these rules often have the power to damage or improve the quality of life for thousands, if not millions, of North Carolinians.

Among the rules are the “2Ts” – so named for the state statute they reference – which apply to sewer systems, swine waste lagoons, and the spread of manure on farm fields. The rules, are overseen by the Environmental Management Commission (EMC), which must approve or disapprove any proposed changes.

Recently, at a hearing in Raleigh, state environmental officials considered a new set of proposed amendments to the rules. “This is the first time we’ve lifted the hood on the waste management rule in 10 years,” attorney Will Hendrick, manager of the Waterkeeper Alliance’s Pure Farms/Pure Waters campaign, told Policy Watch before a recent public hearing. “Waterkeepers are keenly interested in an inadequately regulated industry.”

Weak 2T rules can harm those who live near industrialized hog or chicken farms, as well as neighbors of fields where tons of manure is slathered as fertilizer. The rules inexplicably classify wastewater from these systems as “non-discharge,” because it supposedly doesn’t enter lakes, streams, wetlands and rivers.

“We believe it’s legal fiction that they are non-discharge operations,” Hendrick said at a recent public hearing in Raleigh. “Some modicum of monitoring is appropriate.”

But since this wastewater is classified as “non-discharge,” it’s not subject to air, surface water or groundwater monitoring or enforcement.  And what you don’t look for, you can’t find.

At the hearing, critics of proposed revisions to the 2T rules noted that because hog waste lagoons can leak with age and manure can run off farm fields, a failure of these systems can and does discharge wastewater. This wastewater in turn can pollute rivers, lakes and streams — sources of drinking water for millions of people.

Policy Watch asked Andy Curliss, chief executive officer of the NC Pork Council, via email if there is independent data showing that no contaminants are released into the air, surface water or groundwater from swine CAFOs (an abbreviation for “concentrated animal feeding operations”). He replied  that every hog farm in North Carolina has an approved and customized nutrient management plan  to ensure that manure is applied to crops at the proper rates to prevent runoff.

Curliss did not answer whether swine producers would be amenable to routine monitoring to ensure they are protecting the environment.

With the quality of drinking water at stake, one would think that transparency should be paramount. But the rule revisions reduce public access to the process. For example, the terms of non-discharge permits would be extended from five to eight years. Increasing the time between renewals, said Allen Buansi, a fellow at the UNC for Civil Rights, “would lessen public input.”

Curliss said the group first learned of the permit extension when the proposed rules were published. “We don’t have a position on the length of permits,” he said.

The rules would also allow poultry farms to keep manure hauler records onsite – rather than in a publicly accessible electronic database or at a state office. To examine the records, the public would either have to get permission to visit the farm, which is unlikely, or ask the state to retrieve the records. That process could take weeks or months. Plus, it would be logistically impossible to inspect and compare records from all of the farms.

The NC Poultry Federation did not return a phone call seeking comment.

While swine farms and their waste receive most of the attention, the proliferation of poultry farms often goes overlooked. The poultry industry – broilers, eggs, chickens and turkeys – has filled a vacuum left by the swine farms. No new swine farms can be built in North Carolina unless they have state-of-the-art waste disposal systems, but poultry has no such restrictions. The lack of regulation has made North Carolina hospitable for giant poultry farms. North Carolina now ranks second in the nation in turkey production.

Many of these poultry farms are locating in the same counties as the major hog operations. According to an NC State University study, four major hog-producing counties — Duplin, Sampson, Wayne and Lenoir – also rank highest in turkey production.

“Poultry operations have snuck in and filled in around swine operations,” said Dr. Virginia Guidry, an epidemiologist and science writer at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The concentration of these huge operations creates not only environmental problems but also health issues. “In siting a CAFO, you should consider the location and its impact on public health.”

Guidry was speaking as a private citizen and not in her capacity at NIEHS.

Since poultry operations produce “dry litter,” aka feces that is not wet, the state automatically deems them as permitted. But Guidry said the dry litter classification is misleading. “After a rain the manure will run off.” And the wind can kick up dry litter, potentially harming residents downwind.

“Health isn’t just the absence of disease,” Guidry said. “It’s about being able to go outside, to be with your family and have cook outs. People who live next to CAFOs can’t do those things.”

The public can comment on these rules via email or regular mail. Deadline is Wednesday, Nov. 22.
Electronically: [email protected]
Snail mail: NC DEQ, Division of Water Resources, Water Planning Section
Attn: 2T @U Rule Comments
1611 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-1611