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Emily Sutton: Storms, poultry production threaten our waters
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Emily Sutton: Storms, poultry production threaten our waters

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Storm season officially began June 1, and with it loom a number of environmental and public health threats that North Carolina remains unprepared to address. High on the list is the danger posed by the millions of chickens and turkeys — and the nearly 5 million tons of animal waste they produce — being raised in undisclosed locations around the state. These operations pose significant hazards to health and environmental quality on a daily basis, and the threat of flooding enhances these concerns.

The expansive and unregulated poultry industry in North Carolina is a problem for public health and the environment with or without storm impacts. The number of chickens and turkeys produced in the state has gone up 17% in just the last seven years, totaling now more than 538 million. These birds produce an enormous amount of waste, and no one knows where it all goes.

Poultry waste is traditionally stored in massive piles, sometimes directly next to streams. Piles can sit uncovered for weeks at a time, exposed to rain and wind. After sitting out, the waste is trucked to cropland, then spread. Exposure to wind creates air hazards that affect the health of nearby communities. And when it rains, stormwater runoff from that waste becomes a new threat to public health due to its high pH, ammonia and dangerous levels of bacteria. As it’s washed into creeks and streams, it makes the environment there unlivable for macroinvertebrates and aquatic life — and dangerous for children splashing around in them.

The birds themselves pose another kind of threat. During Hurricane Florence, 3.4 million chickens drowned. Dead animals can contaminate surface waters if left unattended, but they can also contaminate groundwater if they are buried irresponsibly in unlined pits.

Shockingly, the whole industry exists with next to zero state oversight. Poultry waste is the state’s largest and fastest-growing source of nutrient pollution from animal agriculture, but the state doesn’t know how many poultry operations there are in North Carolina or how much waste is being spread where. Crucial information about the massive amount of pollution from poultry is not captured anywhere.

It’s true that each poultry operation is required to have a waste management plan, but those plans are not checked, certified or turned in to the state. We have no idea if those records exist at all. No one knows if the cropland where waste is spread can take up all the phosphorus and nitrogen from that waste, or if those pollutants will wash into the nearest water body the next time it rains. We don’t know where the manure is being spread, or at what rate.

Transparency is a key step to understanding and solving this problem. A modest first step would be for the law to require poultry facilities to submit to the state the waste management plans they’re already required to develop. These plans should be digitized and certified, reviewed and approved. This will allow state agencies, and the public, to know where poultry waste winds up.

This spring at the N.C. General Assembly, Reps. Ricky Hurtado and Graig Meyer introduced legislation (House Bill 917) that would accomplish this. Legislative leaders have not provided the bill an opportunity to move forward, but it’s not too late to change course and do the right thing.

In addition to improvements in reporting and transparency, we also need siting requirements to keep the problem from getting worse, especially in vulnerable areas.

Too many poultry operations sit in the state’s floodplain, and more are being built. During Hurricane Matthew, 113 poultry facilities flooded. During Hurricane Florence, 441 barns were flooded. No new poultry facilities should be built in the state’s 500-year floodplain.

Siting limits should also take into account the volume and density of an area’s poultry operations. The poultry population in Duplin, Sampson and Robeson counties grew by 30 million in eight years. This leads to significant air and water pollution is a condensed area, and has disproportionate impacts on low-income communities and communities of color. And too often, the cumulative effect of multiple operations in the same community is ignored. There has to be a ceiling on how many operations can open in a three-mile radius to limit the burden on these communities.

Next, we need a buyout for poultry facilities constructed within the 100-year floodplain.

We know from our work that there are 41 poultry facilities within the 100-year floodplain and another 74 poultry facilities within the 500-year floodplain. Operations that add to the pollution hardships disproportionately suffered by the state’s Black, Latino and Indigenous people should be at the top of the list for buyouts. Another buyout priority should be operations that are clearly polluting our waters.

It’s long past time that we put reasonable limits on new poultry operations, enacted sensible requirements for existing poultry operations and started the work of buying out operations that sit on the state’s vulnerable flood plains.

Emily Sutton is the Haw Riverkeeper.

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