The hazards from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and coal ash impoundments have been all over the news this year. They share some important features:

We’ve seen some inspiring victories on animal waste management, but many problems remain:

  • Currently a group of 26 nuisance cases representing about 500 residents living near CAFOs are moving through the court system. Residents have been successful in the first five cases against Murphy-Brown (a subsidiary of Chinese-owned WH Group). This is an important victory in the decades-long fight against these old-fashioned, inefficient waste pits (even though the NCGA capped punitive damages to residents, and WH Group is appealing the verdicts).
  • In April 2019 NCDEQ issued new permits for swine, cattle and poultry that will be in effect until September 2024. The new permits are somewhat more stringent–requiring groundwater monitoring for waste lagoons in the 100-year floodplain, and prohibiting animal waste spraying when wind would carry it over property lines. While these are positive steps, it does not address the fact that open pits for this waste will always be woefully insufficient. Nearby citizens and water quality advocates were justifiably hoping for more.
  • Smithfield Foods (also a subsidiary of WH Group), in partnership with Dominion Energy, is launching a voluntary program to cover most NC lagoons by 2030 and convert some waste to biogas. This is a positive step, but it doesn’t fix the problem. Voluntary programs can be halted. Unlined pits, even if covered, still leach into groundwater. And even covered pits in North Carolina’s floodplain are likely to be damaged and breached during hurricanes and strong storms.

On the coal ash front, NCDEQ made headlines all over the country this month when it finally ordered Duke Energy to excavate all coal ash impoundments and dispose of this hazardous waste in lined landfills. (Duke had already been ordered to excavate coal ash in South Carolina, while Dominion Power was required to do so in Virginia.)

The next issue is how much of the remediation costs will be passed on to consumers through rate hikes. While customers can expect the cost of power to gradually increase over time–just like the cost of anything–the NC Utility Commission ought to examine closely the balance between Duke’s costs and its profits. Duke consistently posts healthy profits and earnings for shareholders and generous compensation for executives. Earnings got a boost with the 2017 corporate tax cuts, but they’ve also been sustained by decades of cheap waste disposal.  HB567, introduced this month, would prevent Duke from shifting most of these costs to customers.

Better waste management requirements in both CAFO and coal ash cases largely came about through lawsuits filed by citizens and nonprofit legal groups. These groups include the:

The court system has always been an important means for achieving environmental protection, but this “last resort” has become even more important as federal and state legislatures and regulators have rolled back protections for citizens.

For decades the NCGA has caved to Duke Power and the multi-billion dollar pork and poultry industry, but the period between 2010–2018 was particularly egregious. It would be easy to say that we have a corrupt system that allows private money to call the shots. While this is true–campaign contributions do influence policy and regulation, and the “revolving door” between regulators and lobbyists is a genuine conflict of interest–there are other factors that create a larger, more nuanced system that often favors industry over human health protection.

One is the old song-and-dance that pits environmental protection against the economy. This is a false choice. North Carolinians need not choose between farm jobs and clean water. We have the technology and resources to achieve both. While proper waste management ultimately saves both industry and taxpayers from pricey remediation, it costs more upfront. Generally a business will kick that can down the road if they can. We should not let them.

Secondly, the EPA, NCGA, and NCDEQ often bend over backwards to accommodate industry because they fear being painted as “unfriendly to business.” They will allow facilities to police themselves, give advance notice on inspections, give facilities an extended amount of time to address pollution violations, etc. Officials want to support their local economy, and industry will play up that angle, often threatening to move to a more “business friendly” locale. It doesn’t help that cities, states and countries do, in fact, compete for industry locations and jobs. (Witness the latest round of civic prostrations for Amazon: cities across America falling over themselves to snag the coveted second headquarters.) These pitches always include tax forgiveness and publicly-funded giveaways, even though reams of research show that the public loses in these deals.

What You Can Do

  • Be informed and vote accordingly. StrongerNC (and other great nonprofits in North Carolina) track the minutiae of governance and can help you be informed and engaged.
  • Tell your representatives to fund the DEQ so it can do its job. Republican majorities over the past eight years have repeatedly cut funds for enforcement, research and programs.
  • Get involved with a local nonprofit that supports your values (the list above is a great place to start).  The past year’s achievements show that your voice and support can make a difference.