Impact Story 10: Cape Fear River Watch – Fighting Toxic Pollution and Unsustainable Practices in Eastern North Carolina’s Factory Farms

Posted April 10, 2017

Louis Bacon and The Orton Foundation, the North Carolina affiliate of The Moore Charitable Foundation, are deeply committed to protecting the Cape Fear River – its wetlands, land, forests, wildlife habitats, as well as to fighting a myriad of environmental injustices facing communities in its basin. To this end, we have partnered with Cape Fear River Watch (CFRW), now for twenty years, to support their mission of improving and preserving the health and heritage of the Cape Fear River basin through education, advocacy, and action.

Recently, Cape Fear Riverkeeper and CFRW’s executive director Kemp Burdette wrote a blog post for louisbacon.com called “A River Worth the Fight: Visualizing a Healthy, Connected and Respected Cape Fear.” Hinting at the breadth of organization’s work and illustrating the depth of our partnership, he covers among other issues the devastating impacts of industrialized farming on the people and environment of Eastern North Carolina. Here is that section of his post, reprinted below. To read the entire blog post, click here.

The Devastation of Industrial Farming Waste and Hurricane Matthew
The Cape Fear River Basin boasts many superlatives. Its size and diversity are unmatched in North Carolina. The oldest living trees east of the Rocky Mountains are found within its swamps. Numerous endangered and special species call the watershed home. The river cuts through the heart of North Carolina and is a centerpiece in the state’s history and culture.

However, the Cape Fear Basin tops another, not so desirable list: home to the highest concentration of factory farms on planet Earth, industrial scale agriculture referred to as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs for short. The impacts from the concentrated waste of millions of animals is wreaking havoc on the river.

A Flooded CAFO after Hurricane Matthew. Photo: Rick Dove, Waterkeeper Alliance

For decades, the American farm has been dying a slow death, while industrial meat production has risen to dominate the way our country eats. True family farms are rare in North Carolina these days, replaced by enormous facilities where animals are tightly packed indoors, frequently caged or crated, their lives manipulated to encourage growth at rates that far exceed what is natural. The waste from these animals is sprayed or spread on the landscape in concentrations and amounts that far exceed the landscape’s ability to accept them, and runoff of animal waste into streams and rivers is a common and extremely serious problem. The people who live near these facilities, frequently people of color, are subjected to conditions that most Americans would not believe existed in our country. The stench from CAFOs settles on the area around them. The spray of feces and urine drifts across property lines as the wind blows. Streams are so full of bacteria that they resemble open sewers. Disease is rampant in CAFOs and strong scientific evidence shows that CAFOs are responsible for the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The nutrient load from the waves of runoff create blooms of toxic blue green algae that threatens the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people living in the Cape Fear Basin.

Given the size and scope of the problem, it has been especially frustrating that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) under former Governor Pat McCrory had been so willing to turn a blind eye to the rampant dumping of animal waste by CAFO operators. Reports of illegal pollution from Riverkeepers across the state were largely ignored by NCDEQ. The industry’s influence in the NC General Assembly is clear as well, and laws that protect the industry at the expense of people across North Carolina have become commonplace.

The consequences of willful inaction by state regulators has never been more apparent than in October of 2016, when historic flooding from Hurricane Matthew inundated eastern North Carolina with floodwaters, in many cases exceeding all time high water marks. North Carolina Riverkeepers took to the skies before and following Hurricane Matthew. Before the storm, as well as before Tropical Storm Hermine just a month before, we documented dozens of farms illegally spraying waste immediately prior to tropical rain events. Following Hurricane Matthew we recorded farms and waste lagoons covered by floodwaters. Dead animals filled these barns and raw untreated animal waste flowed freely into the state’s waterways. Riverkeepers documented illegal spraying and inundated barns and lagoons and reported them, including high resolution photographs, GPS coordinates, and detailed written reports to the NCDEQ. In most cases we were ignored, and in some we were actually criticized by the very agency responsible for protecting the state’s rivers.

The fight against CAFOs is a classic David vs. Goliath story; it is long and complex. The industry has an army of lobbyists and near unlimited resources at their disposal. They are putting the small farmer out of business. They have spent millions of dollars on phony advertising campaigns that attempt to portray CAFOs as Green Acre-esque family farms, when in reality they are factories where meat and waste are produced at scales never before seen.

Riverkeepers across North Carolina are fighting on several fronts: standing up for the small farmer, documenting illegal pollution, highlighting the impacts of that pollution on people and the environment, underscoring the failure of NCDEQ to do its job and regulate the industry, revealing that elected officials have turned their back on the people of North Carolina in favor of campaign contributions from the CAFO industry, and showing the public the truth about factory farms.

We are thankful to Mr. Bacon and The Orton Foundation for being such long-time partners in this must-win battle.