The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided to investigate whether lenient regulation by North Carolina's environmental agency of industrial hog operations harmed minority neighbors.
The Waterkeeper Alliance and other groups released an EPA letter Wednesday stating that the federal agency will launch a civil rights investigation of North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The groups had asked the EPA last fall to investigate whether state officials would have been tougher on 2,000 North Carolina swine operations raising 10 million hogs if the neighbors were not black, Hispanic or Native American.
"What they're looking at is whether or not living in proximity to the facilities is harmful and whether or not that harm disproportionately impacts" minorities, said Marianne Engelman Lado, an attorney for the advocacy group Earthjustice, representing the complaining groups. "The community has for generations at this point, for decades, been crying for more protection from the waste."
The EPA letter dated last Friday said its decision to investigate doesn't suggest it has found evidence backing the complaint.
"We understand that the EPA has agreed to review the complaint and will provide any information the agency needs during that process," DENR spokesman Drew Elliot said in an emailed statement.
EPA said in a statement that its Office of Civil Rights is trying to resolve the complaint informally while it investigates the state agency.
Neighbors of industrial-scale hog farms have complained for decades that collecting manure in cesspools before spraying them onto farm fields generates unbearable smells and harms health.
EPA said it needs more information before it decides whether to investigate a second allegation — whether North Carolina's DENR failed to enforce its regulatory or statutory requirements for swine farms.
The EPA complaint is part of a raft of efforts by environmentalists, community groups, and local governments from Washington state to Iowa and North Carolina pressuring the livestock industry to change its methods. The arguments are based on studies that increasingly show the impact phosphorous, nitrate and bacteria from fertilizer and accumulated manure have on lakes and rivers and find that air pollution related to livestock operations may be harmful to respiratory health.
The activism comes decades after hog and other livestock operators joined other types of farm producers in consolidating. For example, the hog industry had more than 200,000 farms in the early 1990s, a number that fell to about 21,600 by 2012.