Greenwire: Groups press Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on North Carolina hog farms and come visit for themselves

Posted October 7, 2016

Louis Bacon, The Moore Charitable Foundation and affiliate The Orton Foundation are proud partners of The Waterkeeper Alliance, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help and The North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.

A coalition of environmental and civil rights advocates is urging Congress to pressure U.S. EPA to investigate whether North Carolina industrial hog farms disproportionately hurt minorities.

“We need some relief in our communities,” Devin Hall, co-founder of the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, said at a Capitol Hill briefing yesterday. “At this point, we need some congressional help.”

The groups — also including the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and Waterkeeper Alliance — have filed two separate complaints with EPA alleging rules controlling swine waste are violating the civil rights of African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.

They argue the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality allows more than 2,000 swine operations to run “with grossly inadequate and outdated systems of controlling animal waste and little provision for government oversight” and that the operations disproportionately affect minorities.

The number of minorities living within 3 miles of state industrial swine facilities is 1.5 times higher than the number of non-Hispanic whites, the groups said.

This year and in 2014, attorneys for the green group Earthjustice filed formal complaints with EPA on behalf of the groups.

Civil rights law allows people to file administrative complaints if they believe recipients of federal cash have taken discriminatory actions. EPA has the authority to withhold funding if it finds wrongdoing.

EPA has agreed to investigate both complaints, but the groups say the agency has been slow to begin. Once EPA accepts a complaint, it has 180 days to launch an investigation.

North Carolina environmental regulators asked the administration to reject the groups’ pleas. DEQ has maintained that a revised permit for open-air lagoons better protects the state’s waters.

DEQ’s general counsel, Sam Hayes, in a recent letter to EPA’s Office of Civil Rights called the civil rights complaint “specious” and a “tactical collateral attack.”

Eastern North Carolina residents, along with representatives of the coalition, met with EPA staff this week and urged aides to visit the affected sites and begin an investigation in earnest.

“It seems they’ll come,” said Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman Lado. She said staff from multiple divisions, including the general counsel and civil rights offices, attended the meeting.

Broader environmental justice concerns
Depending on age, hogs produce between three and eight times the amount of waste per day as the average person. And under the current permit, hog facilities can store urine and feces in open-air “cesspools” known as “lagoons” before they spray waste on nearby fields as a fertilizer, the groups said.

Those operations can pollute the air and drinking water and cause people living nearby to get sick, the advocates said.

Violet Branch, a native of affected Duplin County, lives across the street from a swine facility and said sometimes the odor is so bad it wakes her up at night and occasionally induces vomiting.
Residents have reported not leaving their homes, no longer drying clothing on outdoor lines and abstaining from backyard cookouts.

A 2001 Supreme Court ruling in Alexander v. Sandoval found that the Civil Rights Act regulation concerning environmental justice did not allow for private lawsuits in instances of discrimination.

Affected parties’ only recourse is through EPA, which has long been criticized for its handling and enforcement of civil rights and environmental discrimination.

Despite its regulatory authority, EPA has never made a formal finding of discrimination. And the agency has never denied or withdrawn funding on the basis of discrimination.

In a 230-page report released last month, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that the language EPA uses to classify environmental injustice impedes its ability to resolve complaints.

The commission also concluded that EPA has not incorporated environmental justice into its decisionmaking in a substantive way.

Agency leaders have said they are trying to do better. Earlier this year, EPA rolled out a technical guide for addressing environmental justice, which aims to improve its response to civil rights complaints (Greenwire, June 7).

Administrator Gina McCarthy praised the document, calling it “a significant development in our efforts to fulfill that responsibility, providing the information and direction our analysts need to assess environmental justice concerns during regulatory analysis.”

Engelman Lado said she’s hopeful EPA will take aggressive action. “They seem to be taking the complaint seriously,” she said.

– Arianna Skibell, E&E reporter
From October 7, 2016 Greenwire