On Wednesday, April 26, the Environmental Justice Clinic at Vermont Law and Graduate School, on behalf of Lumber River Waterkeeper Jefferson Currie, environmental organizer Donna Chavis and Friends of the Earth, filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Civil Rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 alleging that North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality’s (NCDEQ) failure to adequately regulate the dry litter poultry industry illegally discriminates against Native, Black and Latino communities in Robeson, Duplin and Sampson Counties.
“NCDEQ has spent years doing nothing in the areas where it can regulate the poultry industry,” Currie stated, “NCDEQ’s hands-off approach, which turns a blind eye towards basic poultry litter and litter hauling regulations, is allowing the operators of poultry Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and poultry companies to pollute our land, air and water. Water sampling by Riverkeeper programs and others has shown that industrial animal agriculture is polluting our waterways with bacteria, nitrates and phosphorous at alarming levels. Living one-half mile from a 16-barn poultry operation and just over one mile from a total of 28 poultry barns, I’ve experienced the stench of poultry waste and the waves of flies that invade the homes and lives of the majority low income and Black, Brown and Indigenous people in our communities. These industrial animal operations are harmful to the health of our families and the waterways of the Lumber River, yet NCDEQ does nothing. We hope this complaint compels EPA to investigate NCDEQ’s failures and spurs DEQ to put a check on this proliferating and polluting industry.”
Last year, the North Carolina poultry industry produced 1 billion chickens and turkeys. At any given time, there are at least 100 birds for every person in the state. Dry litter poultry facilities confine thousands of chickens or turkeys in rows of long barns that have proliferated across the state.
According to Chavis, “Poultry facilities are the fastest growing in North Carolina’s Industrial Animal Operations industry and yet it remains the least regulated. The failure to regulate and properly monitor these facilities endangers the health and safety of those closest to them. It also puts at risk the air and water standards for entire regions. It is time that North Carolina holds these facilities accountable. Today’s filing is a major step in that direction.”
The litter from the barns — a combination of feces, urine, water and sawdust or other bedding — is typically stored in outdoor piles attracting rodents and flies before being spread across fields as fertilizer. Chemicals and nutrients from the litter run off into the waterways, and aerosolized particles from the dust blow across the region, impacting water and air quality and causing adverse human health impacts and putrid odors. The communities near dry litter poultry facilities are predominantly Black, Native and Latino and bear a disproportionate burden of pollution from these facilities.
“Dry litter poultry facilities comprise the largest industry in North Carolina yet have been unlawfully allowed to operate without adequate regulations in place,” said Hallie Templeton, Legal Director for Friends of the Earth. “This lack of regulation fails to protect the environment and nearby communities from industrial agriculture pollution. It also prevents state officials and the public from accessing vital statistics and records related to the industry. Today’s filing launches the first step toward finally securing much needed standards for this prevalent and destructive industry.”
Dry litter poultry operates in a unique regulatory gap: it is the only animal feeding operation that is categorically not subject to NCDEQ permitting or regulatory requirements. A new poultry grower can show up at any time in any location subject only to often permissive local zoning requirements. NCDEQ does not inspect these facilities or request any information about their operations, not even their locations.
“NCDEQ failures to adequately regulate dry litter poultry facilities continue to harm community health and shows a clear pattern of disregard by NCDEQ — to protect the health of communities previously harmed by the hog industry,” said Fredrick Ole Ikayo, LLM Fellow at the Environmental Justice Clinic at Vermont Law and Graduate School. “Allowing poultry facilities to be sited anywhere without an actual permit result in added harms to communities and operation with impunity by poultry facilities.” The Complaint calls upon EPA to investigate NCDEQ’s violations and compel DEQ to bring dry litter poultry under a comprehensive and adequately protective permitting regime to ensure equitable environmental, health and wellbeing outcomes for all residents in North Carolina.
Poultry is not the first industry NCDEQ has allowed to go unchecked. Industrial hog facilities have long afflicted these same residents: Duplin and Sampson rank the highest in concentration of hog operations in the United States. In 2018, NCDEQ came to a settlement agreement with grassroots environmental organizations that alleged similar Title VI violations regarding the health, environmental and wellbeing harms stemming from hog facilities in Native, Black and Latino communities. Now, dry litter poultry facilities are concentrating in the same areas already overburdened by the hog industry, creating a panoply of cumulative harms not being accounted for by NCDEQ.
NCDEQ is a recipient of federal funds and is obligated to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race by agencies receiving federal funds, including agency practices that have a discriminatory effect on people of color.
The Complaint collects declarations from local residents about the impacts of the dry litter poultry industry on their communities and quality of life:
- Henry Brewer, a lifelong resident of Robeson County, describes the litter or crust from nearby dry litter facilities: “Crust is dumped across the street from my house around every hundred days . . . Each of the five piles is over eight feet tall. They stand there and start fuming off. The odor is terrible. Sometimes it feels like the flies are about to eat us alive — the dogs can’t even live in the yard.”
- Brewer also said, “I helped [my daughter] buy a home but she didn’t want a home here. I remember she told me that she would never come back to Robeson County because people are dying and it’s not going to change unless we do something about it.”
- David Shane Lowry, a member of the Lumbee Tribe and resident of Robeson County, observed, “Rates of asthma and cancer are increasing rapidly while quality of life declines. I cannot prove where the cancer is coming from, but we are starting to see what they call cancer clusters.”
- Mac Legerton, co-director of the Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development, a minister and a canoe and kayak outfitter, said of the water quality concerns: “In the summer, the swamps contain algae now because of runoff from poultry facilities and the spreading of litter. The algae issue has significantly increased in the last five or ten years. As an outfitter on the Lumber River, I question whether or not I should encourage canoers and kayakers, including young children, to float and swim in the river. The toxic waste from poultry finds its way into our small swamps and river, impacting both water quality and the health of fish and other aquatic life. Many families who live on a subsistence level are dependent on fish as a food source.”
Building on the work conducted by the former staff attorney, Ruthie Lazenby, LLM Fellow Fredrick Ole Ikayo, and previous student clinicians Callista Smith, Alyssa Shea, Beckett McGowan and Kate Frederick — Spring 2023 Environmental Justice Clinic students Clara Derby, Sophia Hampton, Rajeev Venkat and Fredrick Ole Ikayo (LLM Fellow) finalized the Civil Rights Complaint.
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