In an election like none before it, the residents of North Carolina—particularly the hog- and poultry-intensive eastern counties—are fighting long odds to regain the power of their vote.
In an election like none before it, the residents of North Carolina—particularly the hog- and poultry-intensive eastern counties—are fighting long odds to regain the power of their vote.
October 22, 2020
Elsie Herring spends many days documenting and responding to complaints from her neighbors—about everything from the stench coming off of factory farms to the clearcutting of trees for timber to the emissions from nearby factories. But lately, when Herring, a community organizer for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (EJN), gets a call, she’s also been making sure the person on the other end of the line has a plan in place to vote.
With almost two million swine within its borders, Herring’s native Duplin County in eastern North Carolina is the top hog-producing county in the United States. And because many residents have pre-existing health conditions, in part from living alongside the waste produced by so many animals, many are choosing to mail their ballots in this year rather than venture to the polls, where COVID-19 presents an additional threat.
But, in a part of the state home to many people of color, Herring worries about reports of minority ballot rejection rates. In North Carolina, the ballots of white voters are being rejected at a rate of .5 percent, while Black voters’ ballots are being rejected at a 1.8 percent rate and Native American voters’ ballots are being rejected at a 4 percent rate (eight times more than white voters’), according to October 21 data from the U.S. Elections Project.
“They’re disproportionate, and right there, that tells me they’re trying to suppress the Black votes,” Herring says. “That has always been their focus, to suppress our vote and not allow us the right.”
And so, she carefully walks her neighbors through the mail-in voting process: “We’re telling them to be careful and aware of what they’re writing and not writing on their ballots. The witness name has to be printed, and you have to have their signature and address. If that’s not there, they kick it out.”
Herring’s fears about the suppression of minority votes are not ill-founded, given recent and long-term efforts in North Carolina. Over the last decade, the state’s General Assembly, which the Republican party has controlled since 2010, has gerrymandered voting district maps along racial lines and passed numerous laws aimed at making it harder for minorities to vote (though many of the measures have not held up in court and are no longer in place).
In the midst of these ongoing efforts, many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities in the eastern part of the state say they’ve repeatedly watched as their elected officials promote the interests of hog and poultry companies over their safety and well-being—as evidenced by the number and density of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) permitted in their communities and the ineffectiveness of the facilities’ waste-disposal systems.
In addition to enabling the industry to concentrate around low-income communities of color, residents say state lawmakers have limited the tools those communities once had at their disposal to protest the resulting pollution.
Voter suppression and environmental injustice often perpetuate and compound each other: Without people in office to protect their interests, polluting industries such as the state’s industrial hog and poultry operations proliferate and remain largely unchecked, Herring says. And when industries pollute with little consequence, damaging the health and quality of life of the people around them, people are less likely to prioritize getting to the polls, especially given the fact that many are already dealing with myriad other issues, including poverty, food and housing insecurity, and lack of quality education and access to healthcare.
“It’s particularly troubling that when someone who is harmed by all these cumulative impacts seeks to remedy that . . . they find [that] the legislature in recent years has taken very intentional steps to deprive them of long-available remedies,” says Will Hendrick, staff attorney and manager of the Waterkeeper Alliance’s North Carolina Pure Farms, Pure Waters campaign.
Sherri White-Williamson, who worked for years in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office for Environmental Justice before returning two years ago to her hometown in Sampson County, says she has tried to encourage young people in her town to vote. “The reaction is, ‘Why should I? My vote won’t matter—they [corporations] control everything, and that won’t change,’” says White-Williamson, who now works as the NC Conservation Network’s environmental justice policy director. “People who live in communities and get stuff dumped on them feel less empowered to be able to effect any change.”
As a swing state that voted for Barack Obama in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012, and Donald Trump in 2016, North Carolina will be pivotal in this election. The U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Thom Tillis and his Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham could affect which party controls Congress as well. And while there are many conservative parts of the state, the demographics are changing as metropolitan areas continue to grow and more Latinx and young people register to vote.
Despite the factors stacked against them—made worse by the pandemic—Herring says many people in eastern North Carolina are still determined to make their voices heard. This year, groups like the one she’s involved with are working to educate voters and ensure they have transportation to the polls. And while Herring’s biggest concern is that her community’s votes will be under attack, she asks: “What can we do to combat that? I don’t know, other than just showing up at the polls to bring about a change.”
In 2011, Republicans gained control of both of North Carolina’s Congressional houses and redrew the legislative district maps in the once-a-decade redistricting process to favor their party. In 2017, a district court and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the maps were illegally racially gerrymandered, meant to dilute the voice of Black voters. Two years after lawmakers submitted new maps, federal judges struck down the voting districts again, this time as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders, saying they had been drawn with “surgical precision”—and were among the most manipulated in the nation. Lawmakers were ordered a second time to redraw the maps, which will be redone yet again in 2021, based on the 2020 Census.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in the state have made two other attempts at passing voter suppression laws. HB 589, one of the most dramatic voting rights rollbacks in the U.S., was overturned in federal court after it had been in effect for several years, and the voter ID requirement HB 1092 was blocked by a federal judge.
“There are a lot of different ways people are trying to cut back who is eligible to vote, whose votes count after they are cast, and who is going to feel comfortable voting,” says Kat Roblez, staff attorney with Forward Justice, a nonpartisan organization advancing racial, social, and economic justice in the South. In the Old North State—and nationwide—these tactics commonly include in-person voter intimidation at the polls, periodic purges of voter rolls, the spread of misinformation, voter ID requirements, and felony disenfranchisement laws, she says.
This year, the pandemic and the divisive nature of politics bring additional concerns. While in 2016, about 25 percent of total votes were cast by mail, this year that portion will be almost twice that, according to the Pew Research Center—and voting in a new way comes with its own complications. “It doesn’t have to be active voter misinformation as much as confusion,” says Roblez. At the same time, many residents have concerns about the effectiveness of the postal service itself, prompted by budget cuts and policy changes put in place over the summer.
The increased number of demonstrations by white supremacist and neo-Confederate groups is also worrisome, Roblez says. “What we’re most concerned about in some of the more rural areas is . . . Confederate parades coming to the polls,” she says, recalling how last February, demonstrators hung Confederate flags at a polling site in Alamance County, North Carolina.
Social distancing requirements will also necessitate larger polling places, which can put rural precincts, with less infrastructure available, at a disadvantage. “In an instance where a bigger polling location is needed, they might close two others that are smaller, but that [new] location may not be as accessible,” explains Joselle Torres of Democracy NC.
White-Williamson remembers seeing voter suppression growing up in Sampson County—a particular business owner showing up at the polls to confuse and discourage Black voters, for example—but she hasn’t been aware of polling-place suppression efforts in recent years.
Still, she could see it happening this year. George Floyd was originally from Clinton, the town where she lives, and after his murder at the hands of a white police officer in May, someone pulled down the Confederate statue in front of the Sampson County courthouse, sparking heated public debates.
“There are a lot of things fresh on people’s minds,” she says. “As a Republican county, I see the potential for there to be efforts at polling places to discourage voting, like what we’re seeing around the country.”
Jeff Currie, a member of the Lumbee Tribe who works as a riverkeeper protecting the Lumber River watershed, believes the poor education system in low-income parts of the state also has a role to play in the area’s disenfranchisement.
“If the education system is not saying ‘vote,’ people don’t understand what voting is—they lack civics training and education and the cultural sense that that’s what you do,” he says.
As Election Day approaches, Democracy NC and Forward Justice are placing volunteer vote protectors at polling places across the state who “are ready and trained to sound the alarm” if they see signs of suppression, adds Torres.
While legislators have tried to limit voting, the hog and chicken industries in eastern North Carolina have grown exponentially in ways that damage their surroundings, residents say. In the 1970s, family farmers in North Carolina raised an average of 60 pigs per farm, and the animals were free to roam around outside. That began to change in the 1980s and ’90s, however, as state lawmakers like teacher and farmer Wendell Murphy sponsored and helped pass bills that shielded large-scale hog farms from local zoning regulations and gave the industry subsidies and tax exemptions.
Now, North Carolina ranks second in the country for the number of hogs it produces, and the state’s average hog farm houses more than 4,000 animals. The 4.5 million hogs in Duplin and Sampson counties—the top two hog-producing counties in the country—produce 4 billion gallons of wet waste a year, making up 40 percent of the North Carolina’s total. The waste is stored in open-air pits and periodically sprayed on nearby fields.
The foul-smelling chemicals the facilities release—ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, in particular—have been associated with difficulty breathing, blood pressure spikes, increased stress and anxiety, and decreased quality of life. Additionally, a 2018 study found higher death rates of all studied diseases—including infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia—among communities located near hog CAFOs.
For years, residents have spoken out about their suffering. They’ve told their representatives that the odor from the facilities forces them indoors all the time; they can’t sit on their porches, play in their yards, open their windows, or hang their laundry on the line; they have to buy bottled water rather than drinking from their wells; and “dead boxes” containing pig carcasses line the roads, and buzzards, flies, gnats fill the air.
And yet, says Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director of the NC EJN, the state legislators and regulatory agencies don’t listen—and repeatedly prioritize large corporations as they make decisions about the permitting and regulation of these facilities. Time after time, she says, “legislators pass bills unmistakably against their constituents, in favor of the industry.”
In 2013, 500 residents of eastern North Carolina filed nuisance suits against the Chinese-owned Smithfield subsidiary Murphy-Brown, LLC, which owns the majority of the hogs in the state, complaining of the health problems and unpleasant ills the company subjected them to. In a victory for the hog-farm neighbors, juries ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the first five of the more than 20 cases to be tried, awarding the 10 plaintiffs in the first lawsuit more than $50 million in damages. (This number was reduced to a total of $3.25 million due to the state’s punitive-damages cap.) The industry is currently appealing the ruling.
As these lawsuits worked their way through the justice system, though, Herring watched in horror as her county’s representative in the state legislature, Jimmy Dixon, sponsored a bill that tied the hands of disadvantaged people looking for protection from factory farm pollution. The bill, passed in 2017, limits the compensation plaintiffs can receive in civil suits like the Smithfield case to a sum related to the diminished value of their property, and prevents them from receiving damages related to health, quality of life, and lost income.
Dixon, who did not respond to a request for comment in this story, said the bill was designed to protect farmers from the “greedy” lawyers who would sue them. “This bill is designed to protect 50,000 hardworking North Carolina farmers who are feeding a hungry world,” Dixon wrote in a 2017 op-ed in The Raleigh News & Observer.
In 2018, Senator and farmer Brent Jackson sponsored a similar bill that practically eliminates the right of residents to sue industrial hog operations by declaring that agricultural operations cannot be considered nuisances if they employ practices generally accepted in the region (like spraying hog waste on fields, for example). “With Senate Bill 711 on the books, we don’t have a leg to stand on,” Herring says. “We have to take what they give us, and [we don’t] have an avenue for recourse.”
Though legislators say they have the interests of farmers and consumers in mind, Muhammad thinks it’s more about campaign contributions. “You have people in power that are owned by the corporations—they’ve taken so much money from them, even if they wanted to do better, the industries would go after them,” she says.
Those most affected by CAFO pollution are people of color. Duplin and Sampson counties have the highest share of Latinx residents in the state, with 23 and almost 21 percent, respectively. The residents of these two counties are also about 25 and 26 percent Black, as compared with the statewide average of 22 percent.
In 2014, NC EJN, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH), and Waterkeeper Alliance filed a Title VI Civil Rights complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. EPA claiming the North Carolina environmental regulatory agency allowed industrial swine facilities in the state to operate “with grossly inadequate and outdated systems of controlling animal waste and little provision for government oversight”—and that they had an “unjustified disproportionate impact on the basis of race” against Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people.
In 2018, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) settled the complaint, and this year, they put measures in place including a program of air and water monitoring near hog operations and involving impacted community members in permitting decisions. “I believe there’s a group of people [at the DEQ] who are trying to do the right thing,” says Muhammad. “With more collaboration with communities, we’ve seen some change. But you have a body of people who want to hold onto those old ways.”
Another complicating factor is the fact that the state has cut the regulatory agency’s budget year after year. “If you don’t have the budget to hire the staff to do the inspections, that’s a problem,” White-Williamson says.
While the size of pork industry has stabilized since a moratorium on new facilities with the lagoon-and-sprayfield system went into effect in 1997, no such limit was put in place on chicken operations, and as a result, the size of the poultry industry has tripled since then.
According to a report released this summer by the Waterkeeper Alliance and Environmental Working Group, between 2012 and 2019, the estimated number of chickens and turkeys in Duplin, Sampson, and Robeson counties increased by 36 percent to 113 million, compared to only 17 percent in the rest of the state. The racial disparities continue as well: In Robeson County, 42 percent of residents identify as Native American—compared to 1.6 in the state as a whole, according to 2018 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The concentration of chicken CAFOs worries environmental advocates, because rather than being kept in pits, the drier chicken feces is stored in large, uncovered piles and runs off into waterways when it rains. North Carolina chickens produce three times more nitrogen and six times more phosphorous than its hogs, causing environmental damage like toxic algal blooms and fish kills.
Unlike with hogs, the chicken industry does not have to notify the government when it opens a new facility, even if it is in an area prone to floods. As a result, the state environmental regulation agency often does not even know where chicken CAFOs are located, and inspections occur only when a complaint arises.
Lumber Riverkeeper Jeff Currie, who can smell poultry CAFOs from his house, says in the two years that have passed since Hurricane Florence, he’s documented 17 new operations consisting of 320 new barns in the watersheds he watches over.
Currie points out that, in the name of “creating jobs,” governing bodies allow all sorts of polluting industries to cluster in communities of color. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline and a controversial wood pellet plant were both slated to be built in low-income communities of color in the area this year. While the pipeline was cancelled in July, the pellet plant is on its way to completion. If you don’t have the money to hire a private attorney and exert influence, Currie says, “you get dumped on.”
The environmental injustices piled onto low-income communities of color stem in part from their lack of political influence; disenfranchisement efforts on the part of politicians and parties who’d like to stay in power only make it worse.
Eastern North Carolina residents say that even without the state’s attempts to make voting difficult for them, the democratic process is frustrating, because when it comes to protecting them from agricultural pollution, there are no candidates who actually represent their interests.
“You get to the point where you’re like, what’s the point?” Currie says. “It’s not party-based—they all took the money. So who do you go to to try to get a bill introduced to end poultry operations in the 100-year floodplain?”
White-Williamson believes even if solid state- and federal-level lawmakers were elected in 2020, it would take decades to recover from the damage that has resulted from the regulatory rollbacks, budgetary priorities, and culture of hatred that elected officials have promoted over the last few years. “It’s going to be hard to reverse a lot of the environmental damage that has been done, as well as the cultural and racial damage,” she says. “I feel like this is going to [take] almost a generation to straighten out.”
Muhammad is similarly concerned. “I’ve looked at everybody running from the federal level down to the local level, and I don’t hold out hope it’ll be a process that’ll bring about a lot of change,” she says.
And yet, despite the lack of strong local representation on CAFOs, many eastern North Carolina residents are still motivated by a desire to see change at the top, and they’re mobilizing to help each other get out the vote. Because, despite the roadblocks placed in their way and their lack of expectation for change, they have hope that things can get better—they offer as examples the victory in the Smithfield nuisance cases and the collapse of the oil pipeline project. Though the overall system is structured against them, they’ve seen small successes, and they plan to keep at it.
“If we have to continue to fight for the right to vote, so be it,” Herring says. “Whatever the issue is in our communities that is keeping us from living the best lives we can for our families and children, we have to organize, stay informed, hold meetings, make trips, write letters, make phone calls—do whatever we have to do to keep the issue on the forefront until we bring about change. We can’t give up.”
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