Pollution from Farms Violates Civil Rights, Says New Legal Complaint | Civil Eats

Unchecked Poultry Farming in North Carolina Violates Civil Rights, Residents Say

In this week’s Field Report: an environmental justice fight in North Carolina, a new food-and-methane report, states try to limit bee-killing pesticides, and more.

A chicken farm viewed from above in the morning.

Last week, lawyers at the Environmental Justice Clinic at Vermont Law and Graduate School filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on behalf of residents of three counties in rural North Carolina.

The complaint includes a number of residents’ detailed descriptions of the ways that chicken farms are affecting their lives. For instance, resident Henry Brewer described living next to mountains of chicken litter—a mixture of feces, urine, sawdust, and other particles—that industrial-scale chicken farms remove from barns and spread on fields.

“Each of the five piles is over eight feet tall. They stand there and start fuming off. The odor is terrible,” Brewer noted in the complaint. “Sometimes it feels like the flies are about to eat us alive—the dogs can’t even live in the yard.”

Over the past two decades, the size of the chicken industry in North Carolina has exploded and now produces close to a billion birds from large confinement operations each year. In 2017, two-thirds of the state’s chickens came from farms that each sold more than half a million birds annually. Research shows waste from those farms pollutes groundwater, local waterways, and the air, leading to health hazards for local residents. And the farms have built in the same counties where concentrated hog production has long harmed the health and well-being of local communities, adding insult to injury for many residents.

The complaint, filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, rests on a central fact: While North Carolina’s hog farms must now obtain permits to operate (partially because of a previous Title VI complaint), a loophole in the state environmental agency’s regulations has allowed chicken farms to set up shop without any permitting. As a result, they are now concentrated in counties that are disproportionately home to people of color, many of whom are also low-income. Essentially, the complaint claims, the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is discriminating against Black, Native, and Latin American residents by failing to regulate the industry.

“Under state law, DEQ has to take into account cumulative impacts that are happening in a particular location,” said Fredrick Ole Ikayo, a legal fellow who worked on the complaint. “But they don’t even know where these poultry facilities are or anything about the way they are polluting the air and water.”

The action holds particular significance because the lawyers filed the complaint during the same month that President Biden issued an executive order further outlining his administration’s “whole-of-government approach to environmental justice.”

“This approach is long overdue, and it should have animated the civil rights work at EPA since its inception,” said Christophe Courchesne, a professor and attorney who worked on the complaint. “Now, given direction from the top, hopefully EPA will act expeditiously on these types of complaints and really push the state agencies that are the subject of these complaints to change their practices in ways that help these communities.”

It’s not the first Title VI civil rights complaint related to industrial animal agriculture filed this year. In January, a coalition of advocacy groups filed a complaint against Delaware’s state environmental agency after it approved the construction of a facility that will convert gases from the breakdown of poultry waste into to natural gas. The groups said the agency failed to consider the impact on the surrounding low-income communities of color, many of whom are immigrants and have limited English proficiency.

In North Carolina, how the EPA responds to the complaint is of particular interest since the current administrator, Michael Regan, was in charge of the very system that is being targeted until 2020.

“The administrator has deep knowledge of the issues in North Carolina and the political challenges that have resulted in DEQ taking the approach that it has,” Courchesne said. “We take him at his word that the federal administration is committed to environmental justice and where there are issues like these identified, that the agency will take action.”

Read More:
Is Rural North Carolina the next Flint?
In North Carolina, New Pollution Allegations Add to Residents’ Woes
The Battle Over Air Quality on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

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Deadly Farm Dust. Six people died and 37 were hospitalized on Monday after a dust storm caused a horrific, fiery crash on an interstate in central Illinois, involving more than 70 vehicles. The blowing dust came from recently plowed farm fields, and it’s not the first time farm practices have intersected with weather to cause accidents and other serious damage. As droughts get worse due to climate change and some farm fields are left bare, dust is a growing concern. Currently, researchers are working to identify dust hot spots and how they are linked to agriculture.

Read More:
Dust Is a Growing Problem. What Role Does Farmland Play?
A Wild, Windy Spring Is Creating a Soil Erosion Nightmare for Farmers

Methane Metrics and Solutions. Ahead of next week’s global food-and-climate conference in Washington, D.C, Climateworks and the Global Methane Hub released a new report on what’s needed to cut methane emissions from the food system. Methane is a shorter-lived but significantly more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and research has increasingly pointed to the importance of reigning in emissions to meet climate goals.

Globally, the food system produces 60 percent of methane emissions, from livestock, food waste, and rice production. The new report found that a set of innovations could mitigate up to 75 percent of those emissions by 2050, but that getting there would require an additional $60 billion—five times what is currently being spent.

Shifting diets away from beef would have the greatest impact, followed by changes to the way cattle are raised, preventing food waste throughout the supply chain, and composting and other practices that keep food out of landfills. Improving rice production would have less of an impact but is still powerful because of how much rice is grown globally, especially in Asia. And many of the solutions, such as managing water in paddies differently, could be deployed immediately.

In the U.S., diverting food waste away from landfills would be the most powerful change, followed by dietary shifts. The report also found that investing in methane-reducing innovations may have co-benefits including job creation, improving food and nutrition security, and reducing air and water pollution.

Read More:
Methane From Agriculture Is a Big Problem. We Explain Why.
Report Says Plans to Reduce Methane Fall Short on Beef and Dairy

Better for Bees. Bills that would limit the use of commonly used pesticides that harm pollinators and broader ecosystems moved forward in two states last week. In New York, the state Assembly passed the Birds and Bees Protection Act. A coalition of environmental groups, farmers, and health experts then joined legislators to rally for its passage in the state Senate. The act would limit the use of neonicotinoids, or neonics, on lawns and gardens and as a seed coating in agriculture. Meanwhile, the Nevada assembly passed a bill that would ban their use on lawns and plants. That bill would exempt agriculture completely.

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Neonics are systemic insecticides that are sprayed on lawns and fruit and vegetable crops and applied as a coating to corn and soybean seeds planted on millions of acres across the country. In recent years, research on their disastrous impacts on bees, birds, and aquatic life has piled up. While policymakers in Europe have instituted various bans and restrictions on their use, federal-level efforts to curb their use in the U.S. have stalled. As a result, states have stepped in, with Maine, New Jersey, and California already implementing some stricter limites on their use.

Still, the fact that most of the state laws carve out exemptions for agriculture shows how difficult it is to limit pesticide use outside federal action, said Drew Toher, Beyond Pesticide’s Community Resource and Policy Director. “State-level bills are important at reining in toxic pesticide use, but they are also important because they send a message to EPA about the agency’s shortcomings,” he said. In recent months, the EPA has been working through a backlog of projects to evaluate how already-approved pesticides harm endangered species. Despite being required by federal law, the agency has barely evaluated them for decades.

Read More:
Beyond Bees, Neonics Damage Ecosystems
Dead Bees, Sick Residents from Pesticide Pollution in Nebraska
What the Insect Crisis Means for Food, Farming, and Humanity

A New Way to Spray. In California, farmers were given a new tool to spray their crops after the Federal Aviation Administration approved the first autonomous drones for pesticide application. A spokesperson for Massachusetts-based Guardian Agriculture told a local news station that its drones will begin flying over Salinas Valley farms within the next few months and that it already has $100 million in customer orders. And while the shift may lead to fewer acute cases of pesticide exposure for workers, it’s not yet clear what it will mean for rural communities in the state.

Read More:
New Evidence Shows Pesticides Contain PFAS, and the Scale of Contamination Is Unknown
Changes to Federal Rule Could Expose More Farmworkers to Pesticides

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. bob Levinson
    as a master gardener and user of my own made biochar, I find the nutrient density of our food is decreasing at alarming rates. The reason for obesity in our population may be due to the decreasing food density in our mass produced food, and that people need to eat more to obtain the needed nutrition.
    I found that the use of charged (with mineralized fluid) increases the minerals in my garden produce by almost twice the normal.

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