Politics & Government

Senate budget delays hog-farm requirements meant to reduce water pollution

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See images of Hurricane Florence's devastation from the air as photojournalist Casey Toth flies along with a National Guard relief mission to Trenton, NC on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

New requirements for industrial hog farms intended to reduce water pollution would not take effect this year as intended under the state Senate’s proposed budget.

The regulations, set to begin Oct. 1, would be delayed until Oct. 1, 2020, in the Senate budget plan released Tuesday.

Every five years, the state Department of Environmental Quality revises permit requirements for hog farms with more than 250 animals that use pits and sprayfields to dispose of hog waste.

Senate budget writers said a delay is warranted because of the extensive changes they would make to guidelines governing a major industry. The budget provision calls for studying the permit process, and whether the permits should take the track used to make new state rules, which involves approval by the Rules Review Commission.

It’s appropriate to do a “thoughtful review” of the regulations and see if they meet the Administrative Procedure Act, said Sen. Andy Wells, a Catawba County Republican and one of the leaders of the Senate agriculture, natural and economic resources budget subcommittee. “This is an opportunity to do that,” he said.

The state Department of Environmental Quality held public hearings, gathered public input, and published a set of draft regulations before releasing the final versions in April. In addition to industrial hog farms, DEQ also issued revised permit guidelines for cattle and poultry farms.

A DEQ spokeswoman did not return a phone call or respond to an email Tuesday afternoon.

The guidelines include a requirement for the 50 or 60 hog farms that have waste pits, called lagoons, in the 100-year floodplain to install monitoring wells, the News & Observer reported. Some of the requirements seek to have farms better manage the levels of waste in lagoons in light of the more severe storms that are hitting the state. Farmers would be prohibited from spraying waste on fields when wind would carry it across property lines.

The hog permit changes brought the most attention because of federal nuisance lawsuits that neighbors brought against pork producers and a federal civil rights complaint over health problems in minority communities near hog farms the state settled last year.

The N.C. Farm Bureau appealed the new permit guidelines in state administrative court this month, general counsel Jake Parker said in an interview. The legal complaint said the swine permit violated the Administrative Procedure Act because it incorporated terms that were part of DEQ’s settlement with the N.C. Environmental Justice Network, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, and Waterkeeper Alliance.

The cattle and poultry general permits also used some of the language from the swine settlement, Parker said.

“If they had come up through rule-making, it would have been a different story,” he said.

The Farm Bureau did not ask for the year delay, he said, but thinks it’s a good idea.

“I think the members were aware of our petition and acted,” he said. The budget provision “accomplishes the same purpose as the petition.”

Erin Carey of the NC Sierra Club said the delay would postpone needed groundwater monitoring and interfere with an ongoing lawsuit.

“We are disappointed that the N.C. Senate wants to delay and potentially undermine DEQ’s updated general permit for waste management at swine and other animal operations,” Carey, the club’s coastal conservation programs coordinator, said in a statement.

“The permit’s most significant positive change is a requirement to monitor groundwater at farms that have waste lagoons or waste storage facilities in the 100-year floodplain, situations that may present the greatest risk of groundwater contamination. It’s the first time the state has required groundwater monitoring of an animal waste system, from which data will be available to the public,” the statement said. “We are unaware of any problems with the process by which the permit was issued. But the Farm Bureau has already brought a lawsuit in the case, so why would the Senate seemingly interfere with ongoing litigation and further delay these needed improvements?”

The three environmental advocacy groups that reached the settlement with DEQ said in April that they were disappointed the new permits did not address the impacts of swine farms on minority communities.

Even though she thought DEQ’s swine permit did not fulfill promises made in the 2018 settlement, Naeema Muhammad, co-director and community organizer with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, said in an interview that she was disappointed but not surprised by the Senate’s proposed delay in the guidelines DEQ did produce.

“It’s not surprising given the state of our legislative body,” she said. “They seem to be corporately owned these days. Anything they do for the good of industry is not shocking. It’s disappointing, since the people they seem to protect are not the ones that got them into those seats. They seem to have forgotten that.”

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Lynn Bonner has worked at The News & Observer since 1994, and has written about the state legislature and politics since 1999. Contact her at lbonner@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4821.
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