EPA to probe whether N.C. hog farms violate neighbors’ rights

In this Jan. 4, 2005 file photo, a group of young pigs stare out of a pen at a hog farm in central North Dakota. (AP Photo/Will Kincaid, File)
In this Jan. 4, 2005 file photo, a group of young pigs stare out of a pen at a hog farm in central North Dakota. (AP Photo/Will Kincaid, File) AP

The Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to investigate claims that North Carolina’s regulation of hog farms violates the civil rights of their minority neighbors.

Three advocacy groups filed a complaint with EPA in September. North Carolina’s 2,100 farms produce about 10 million hogs a year, second-highest in the nation.

The groups claim the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ lax regulation of the farms discriminates against the African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans who live near the farms in disproportionate numbers.

Advocates filed the complaint after North Carolina renewed a statewide permit regulating hog farms last year without substantially stiffening standards, the groups say.

The complaint was filed under a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits recipients of federal aid from discriminating on racial or other grounds.

EPA agreed to investigate but said it has not determined the merits of the complaint. The agency also asked for more information about one part of the complaint, on DENR’s enforcement of swine regulations, before agreeing to investigate it.

EPA often tries to resolve such complaints informally. Previous settlements have involved changes in policies and practices, not fines.

“I do hope that with the investigation, EPA will talk to people in the impacted communities. It would be good for EPA to listen to the voices that live this struggle,” said Devon Hall of the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help in Duplin County, North Carolina’s biggest hog producer.

DENR spokesman Drew Elliot said “We understand that the EPA has agreed to review the complaint and will provide any information the agency needs during that process.”

The civil rights complaint is part of a growing number of challenges of North Carolina’s $2.5 billion hog industry.

Neighbors have filed 25 federal lawsuits claiming North Carolina farms under contract with hog producer Murphy-Brown LLC are nuisances. The lawsuits have not come to trial.

Eight advocacy groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency in January to try to force federal action on air pollution from industrial livestock farms.

Industrial-scale hog farms in Eastern North Carolina generate massive amounts of manure that is washed into open pits called lagoons. Nutrient-rich effluent from the lagoons is then sprayed on farm fields as fertilizer.

The result, neighbors say, is a choking stench. Studies have shown that people who live near farms often suffer burning eyes, breathing problems, headaches, anxiety, blood pressure spikes.

A study published in January by UNC Chapel Hill and Johns Hopkins University researchers found heavy bacteria from swine in some streams near farms.

The statewide permit North Carolina renewed last year continued the discrimination, said Marianne Engelman Lado, an Earthjustice attorney representing North Carolina’s Rural Empowerment Association for Community Health, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

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Twitter: @bhender