Backyard Talk

CAFOs and Environmental Injustice in North Carolina

While the situation in Flint, Michigan has deservedly garnered much of the American public’s attention, it is important to recognize that it is just one example of many minority and low-income communities around the country that are living in a toxic environment. Rural North Carolina is another community that has seen its leaders fail to protect the most disadvantaged citizens, in this case, from the toxic pollution associated with the many hog farms in the region. African American and Native American communities in this region have been dealing with the toxic conditions for decades, since North Carolina saw a boom in the number of concentrated animal feeding operations, commonly known as CAFOs, in the 1980s and 1990s.
These feeding operations, that allow hog farmers to produce thousands of hogs for slaughter on a single farm, also produce millions of tons of waste, pathogens, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and debilitating odors that damage the health and well-being of the minority families that overwhelmingly makeup the neighborhoods that surround them. As an example of how impactful these CAFOs can be, one 80,000-head facility produced 1.5 times the amount of waste generated by the City of Philadelphia in a single year. Yet, these hog producers lack all of the chemical and mechanical filtration systems that are required to treat human sewage. Instead, waste from these operations end up in unlined and untreated lagoons that leach into groundwater and can even rupture and spill their contents into surrounding landscapes and waterways. In addition, the noxious odors that are generated by CAFOs have also been found to cause respiratory problems, eye irritation, and even high blood pressure among individuals living nearby.
Because the development of this type of farming happened so fast in North Carolina, lawmakers have failed to keep up in implementing the necessary policies and regulations to protect the health of its citizens and environment. Particularly troubling is that despite the fact that CAFOs result in localized health problems, state and local health agencies do not have any authority in regulating them. Instead, natural resource agencies, whose mission is not to protect human health, are left with the responsibility.
While some progress has been made in recent years to improve technology, nearby residents are still struggling with horrible living conditions. This has resulted in a recent complaint filed by the University of North Carolina and Earthjustice in 2014 with the state’s Environmental Protection Agency. The complaint was filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which says that recipients of federal funds must prevent harm to communities or individuals based on race. Negotiations between community groups and regulators fell apart when regulators invited pork industry representatives to participate in negotiations. This left many community members with the impression that state leaders cared less about the health of its disadvantaged citizens, and instead was looking out for the interests of the pork industry. And much like the U.S. EPA failed to act in order to protect the citizens of Flint, they have also yet to intervene and do an investigation to improve the situation in North Carolina and other regions plagued by the negative effects of CAFOs.
This is just one of many examples of environmental injustice that shows us that if there is pollution generated from industry, or in this case, from the production of our food, it is overwhelmingly impacting the most disadvantaged in our society. We need to make the connection between the atrocities that are occurring in Flint, with the similar injustices that are experienced in North Carolina and all across the country and we need to call on our leaders to do a better job of promoting clean and healthy communities for all its citizens.
To learn more about the effects of hog farming, check out this paper by Environmental Health Perspectives