Raleigh, N.C. — Environmental groups this week released a series of interactive maps displaying the locations and waste output of thousands of hog, poultry and cattle operations across the state.
The project's creators, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group, say the maps extensively document for the first time the high concentrations of confined animal feeding operations in certain parts of the state, which can contribute to nutrient pollution in sensitive waterways. But agriculture lobbyists say the project reveals nothing new about livestock farmers, who environmental officials say must follow strict guidelines in one of the most heavily regulated industries in the state.
"North Carolina has one of the most rigorous permitting programs for concentrated animal feeding operations in the country," Stephanie Hawco, deputy secretary for public affairs for the Department of Environmental Quality, said in an emailed statement. "The state environmental department has dedicated staff in seven regional offices that conduct inspections of nearly 2,300 permitted facilities at least once a year. Some facilities are inspected more than once a year."
Some locations exempt from disclosure
One of the map's major findings, however, is novel.
Although the permitted locations of swine and cattle operations are accessible through public records, that same data isn't available for some types of poultry farms.
So-called dry poultry operations – they produce no wet waste and theoretically no runoff – are by law automatically permitted by state regulators, meaning DEQ officials have no listing of their locations. The facilities must have animal waste management plans if they have more than 30,000 birds, but these documents are neither reviewed nor maintained by environmental regulators.
"What this map does is provide some sunshine where there has been none," Sam Perkins, Catawba Riverkeeper, said during a news conference earlier this week.
To map their locations, Perkins said environmentalists literally played a form of "I Spy" with satellite data, identifying the distinctive shape of poultry barns across the state. The result, with the addition of swine and cattle data, shows around 6,500 sites scattered across the state and concentrated in counties such as Sampson, Duplin and Wilkes.
Those high concentrations, which environmental groups assert have grown unchecked, can quickly impact the quality of a nearby river or stream.
"You never get clean runoff to allow waterways to recover," Perkins said.
He said nutrient pollution is especially risky for sites like dry poultry operations that DEQ doesn't monitor under state statute, since any runoff essentially exceeds what's allowed. But without more testing to see if waterways are impaired, Perkins said, the state is showing a "willful ignorance of a problem."
"DEQ has just been underfunded," Perkins said. "They have not been given the ability to see where the problem lies and whether or not the things they're asking farmers to do are adequately working to protect water quality."
'Nothing to be ashamed of'
But industry groups say they don't buy that argument, and they contend no one's trying to hide the growing number of poultry farms across the state, which have expanded with the addition of new processing facilities down east.
"This is the largest industry in state of North Carolina by far," Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, said. "There's nothing to be ashamed of in terms of the size of the industry and what we contribute to North Carolina."
Officials with the Farm Bureau say confined animal feeding operations are highly regulated by state and federal authorities, who regularly track statistics on how many birds are raised in each counties. They're also regularly observed by state officials and environmental groups who fly over the locations to spot violations.
"They're monitored," Wooten said. "It's not like they're just out there doing what they want to do."
Dairy and poultry livestock also have a massive impact on local economies, Farm Bureau officials say, contributing more than $1 billion in sales to both Duplin and Sampson counties alone.
Wooten said the Farm Bureau believes current regulation is adequate to keep nutrient pollution in check, and he said the new maps released this week don't really reveal anything new.
"Just because somebody's put together a heat map on this overlaying different operations doesn't indicate there's a problem," Peter Daniel, of the Farm Bureau, said.
But Perkins is concerned that the state's current approach and the level of testing in waterways adjacent to poultry farms isn't enough. He said he hopes the state changes course to avoid costly cleanup in other places, like with Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay.
"North Carolina hasn't even recognized there's a problem yet," Perkins said.