Your drinking water could be threatened by chicken poop

About 1,000 poultry plants sit in the North Carolina part of the Catawba River basin. Waste from those plants endangers drinking water.
About 1,000 poultry plants sit in the North Carolina part of the Catawba River basin. Waste from those plants endangers drinking water.

Imagine your neighbor saving up all their cat litter in a pile outside, occasionally spreading it around the yard. But instead of one or two cats, it is tens of thousands of chickens.

This is reality north of Charlotte, upstream of our lakes, and a growing problem for the environment statewide.

Mention of industrial meat production or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) often prompts thoughts of pigs and waste lagoons in eastern North Carolina. But in the North Carolina part of the Catawba River basin, there is only one hog CAFO and about 1,000 poultry CAFOs. From the air, you can see the clusters of long, silver houses.

Charlotte is a densely populated consumer hub for the meat generated, but surrounding counties get blanketed with the waste generated as the animals are raised. Poorly managed, the waste can run downstream to the Charlotte area’s lakes – and drinking water reservoirs.

Companies like Tyson and Case Farms aim to maximize production and profit by processing as many chickens as possible as close as possible to their processing plants. Consequently, a lot of waste is generated and spread in a small area, too.

Poultry CAFOs have flocked to North Carolina, where they fly under the radar. They don’t have to get a permit from the state, and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality doesn’t know where they are, how many birds they’re growing, or how much waste they’re producing. How are understaffed enforcement officials supposed to be able to adequately monitor and inspect so many poultry CAFOs?

But for the first time since 2005, we all have an opportunity to comment on updating the waste regulations (called the “2T” rules) that we have learned to be grossly inadequate.

Riverkeepers statewide have been documenting and reporting poultry CAFO problems for years. DEQ has taken note, and recently reported on the industry’s explosive growth and related pollution issues.

From 2006 to 2014, the Catawba River basin in North Carolina has seen a 78 percent increase in poultry. Nowhere is poultry as densely populated as in Alexander County, immediately upstream of Lake Hickory and Lake Norman.

When poultry operations concentrate their waste, relatively little precipitation has to fall for waste to run off to waterways.

Nutrient overloading has decimated waterways like the Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie, fueling harmful algae blooms that have gone so far as to shut down drinking water for a half-million people in the Toledo area. Eastern North Carolina experiences similar toxic blooms. The Charlotte region has been lucky – so far – but water utilities have cited it as a concern.

Poultry waste also contains pharmaceuticals, metals and bacteria. Fun fact: the Catawba River basin has the second-most fecal coliform bacteria of any basin in the state.

These are just environmental problems. Neighbors around poultry CAFOs have complained of difficulty breathing. Waste and feathers coat cars and structures downwind. Imagine living with that every single day.

The current 2T rules have failed to protect communities and water quality. Do you want to enjoy waterways without concern for bacteria or algae blooms? Should waste handling have common-sense safeguards?

If so, the state needs to hear from you, the public. Visit for information on this issue, including a state-hosted public hearing in Hickory and how to submit comments, which will be accepted through Nov. 22.

Perkins is the Catawba Riverkeeper. Email: