Local News

Lawmakers Debate Origin Of N.C. Water Pollution

Posted Updated
RALEIGH, N.C. — The question of what could be fouling North Carolina's waterways has gotten attention recently in the General Assembly, which dodged a showdown over waste lagoons and took up a bill to control sedimentation.

Farmers and developers blame each other for polluting waters more. But environmental experts say the answer is complex, and accusations belie the need for a comprehensive program that will reduce all sources of contamination.

"We're all part of the problem," said Anita Watkins, an ex-senior policy analyst with

the Department of Environment and Natural Resources,

now with

the North Carolina League of Municipalities.

Despite highly publicized spills in the 1990s, hog farmers feel unfairly defamed for contaminating the state's waterways. It came to a head during this spring's heavy rain, when the department cited 400 lagoon operators for having too much waste in their pits.

A bill headed for the Senate floor would have forced regulators to give lagoon operators more leeway on livestock waste during heavy rain. DENR, which opposed the bill, and farmers agreed ultimately to work out a solution that didn't require legislation.

Nevertheless, the farmers' top supporter in the Senate took to the floor to blame spills from municipal sewer systems for being a much bigger problem.

For farmers "to have been vilified by as many people as they have, it's causing me a lot of grief," said Agriculture Committee chairman Sen. Charlie Albertson, D-Duplin. "It's not about farmers. The truth is, it's about you and me. We are the problem of the water-quality challenges we have in this state."

The Division of Water Quality

last year reported 2,047 spills from government or private waste collection systems reaching surface waters, totaling 56.9 million gallons.

Due to heavy rains, the total is much larger this year -- nearly 96 million gallons of waste so far this year.

In contrast, 32 lagoon ruptures reached surface waters last year, while there were another 103 instances of misapplication of waste on fields.

Comparing waste spills from hog lagoons or municipalities is difficult, said Colleen Sullins, the division's deputy director.

Unlike human waste collection systems, which are heavily monitored, Sullins said the state doesn't collect specific data to determine the size of hog waste spills.

"Frequently," she said, "you don't really know when (a spill) began, and you don't have an easy way to kind of estimate the flow."

Nevertheless, the effects of a spill can't be underestimated. One single rupture sent 25 million gallons of hog waste into the New River in 1995.

A hog generates four times as much waste as the average human. Both kinds of waste carry pathogens and lower oxygen levels, suffocating fish and other life.

Supporters of the lagoon bill cite the fact that there were no reports of ruptures this spring related to the rains to show they are doing their part.

"Producers have an increasingly good compliance record," said Beth Anne Mumford, a spokeswoman for

the North Carolina Pork Council.

As for wastewater systems, Watkins said the state's 275 municipalities that operate them are preparing for new regulations this summer that will tighten violations on sewer overflows.

The long-term solution to spills is modernizing sewer pipes and collection equipment, she said.

A report by

the North Carolina Rural Center

said it would cost $11.3 billion to renovate water and sewer systems.

"The primary problem is an aging infrastructure," she said. "Some of them are 50, 75 years old. There really isn't the funding to do anything about it."

Sedimentation, or soil runoff into streams, is widely believed as the greatest threat to pristine waterways. Without buffers, eroding sediment from developed or tilled acreage enters streams and creeks, limiting sunlight and choking out aquatic organism and plant life.

A bill filed by Sen. Eric Reeves, D-Wake, would, among other things, raise fees to hire more inspectors for

the Division of Land Resources,

which enforces the state's sediment control rules.

Reeves was frustrated because he only received 10 minutes for the bill in the agriculture committee Albertson chairs.

"The bill does what they say they want to do," Reeves said. "We need to be hard on everybody that utilizes and pollutes in the river."

The North Carolina Home Builders Association

is opposed to the measure, primarily due to other provisions, including one that would reduce by one-third the amount of time developers would have to plant or cover graded slopes to limit erosion.

"This is perhaps the most onerous part of this bill," said association lobbyist Paul Wilms.

He said construction accounts for only about a tenth of the degradation of freshwater sedimentation.

"The major source of that sediment is agriculture," he said.

A spokeswoman for the state agriculture industry disagrees.

"The real answer is that it's urban development," said Erica Peterson with

the North Carolina Agribusiness Council.

David McNaught, now a policy analyst with the North Carolina chapter of Environmental Defense, said it's not surprising to hear such accusations.

"When you go and try and force the industry to change, then they are pointing at all of the more egregious pollution activity and saying: 'Why don't you pick on them?"' McNaught said.

The only way to clean up waterways is to create a comprehensive plan that takes into account all polluters and treat them equally, he said.

"The reality is you can't compartmentalize and say we can only deal with one source of pollution," he said. "It's all the above."

Copyright 2023 by WRAL.com and the Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.