News

Neuse Riverkeeper goes on the record about CAFO pollution

Advocacy, Climate Change, Environmental, Fish Kills, Flooding, Neuse River Watershed, Sound Rivers, Tar-Pamlico Watershed, Water Quality

Posted on October 19th, 2023

Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop makes comments at the general permit public hearing on Oct. 10.

Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop took to the podium last week to go on the record about how the state needs to do more to prevent pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

There are currently six CAFO general permits up for renewal and open for public comment, all having to do with how animal waste is managed in North Carolina.

A public hearing was held at Wayne Community College in Goldsboro on Oct. 10. Sam said it was sparsely attended.

“My takeaway is that not much has changed with these new permits that address the myriad issues with CAFOs and their waste storage system. The permits do not address the problems of these lagoons leaking, overtopping, or polluting the air and water of nearby communities. They don’t address environmental injustices caused by these facilities and, instead, promote and further entrench these practices,” Sam said. “Still, we are commenting to establish our record of opposition and to perhaps express support for actions that they could take, like more sampling and narrowing eligibility of facilities who are covered.”

You can learn more about and comment directly on the general permits HERE. Sound Rivers will be issuing an Action Alert next week.

Read Neuse Riverkeeper’s comments

My name is Samantha Krop, and I work as the Neuse Riverkeeper with the eastern-North Carolina based nonprofit, Sound Rivers, in which role I am responsible for monitoring water quality on the Neuse and its many tributaries. I will be submitting more detailed written comments, so will just be hitting on the highlights here. 

This year, in the lower Neuse watershed, we have seen the largest fish die off in many years and have documented significant algae blooms throughout the summer and now into the fall. This is nutrient pollution harming our waters. Our Neuse River is struggling, and pollution from CAFO operations is contributing to the problem. 

It has long been established that the “lagoon and sprayfield” system for managing hog waste is outdated and harmful to the environment. The swine general permit assumes that these facilities are not discharging waste into our waterways when, in fact, a substantial and growing body of research indicates that these facilities indeed are. One key study conducted by USGS in 2015 found that watersheds with swine and poultry CAFOs — facilities covered by the general permits — had higher median concentrations of nutrients than reference groups with no animal operations.  

After 30 years of NSW rules, while point sources have reduced their nitrogen inputs, we continue to see an increase in organic N in both the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico watersheds. The NCDEQ must regulate CAFOs as a large nitrogen source in order to meet the Neuse nutrient reduction goals.  

We also need more monitoring of groundwater and surface waters to ensure that facilities are not discharging. The rules are only strong if they are being followed. Sound Rivers has documented numerous confirmed illegal discharges from CAFOs through our own sampling, but it should not be up to a nonprofit to shine a light on these issues. 

We appreciate that the new draft permit requires groundwater monitoring in the 100-year floodplain, but more monitoring is necessary as a minimum measure to ensure that facilities are not discharging into our waterways. 

Facilities that have been cited for improper waste disposal, improper maintenance, and those that have experienced spills should not be eligible for coverage under these General Permits. Coverage under the General Permits should be reserved to only those with a track record of demonstrating adherence to environmental standards. Please consider requiring individual permits for facilities that have been issued on NOV within the past COC. 

The swine general permit should also not be issued to facilities that have waste-storage systems located in the floodplain or floodway. A surprising number of these flood-prone facilities are still operating under General Permits, including facilities that have flooded and spilled in the past. Flood-prone facilities should not be covered under the swine General Permit.

Right now, the state of North Carolina is investing significantly in flood resilience modeling and infrastructure updates to protect eastern NC communities from flooding impacts. Permitting waste storage in flood prone areas undercuts those important investments.

Most importantly, these permits need to do better by our impacted communities.  We know that waste stored in open-air pits and sprayed on nearby fields gets into people’s homes and pollutes our air and our water. We know that nearby families get sick and die at higher rates than people living farther away. We also know that NC’s industrial hog operations disproportionately harm communities of color, and low-wealth rural communities.

A coalition of nonprofits working on CAFO issues recently hosted a People’s Hearing right here in Goldsboro to get community input on these CAFO general permits. Over 80 people attended to speak out and learn about impacts these CAFOs have on their lives. Getting adequate public turnout takes time, and it takes meaningful outreach to impacted communities, and I think that looking at the attendance this evening is evidence that, with all due respect, the NCDEQ still has a long road ahead in that regard. 

Please take the necessary actions to ensure that these permits address these water quality and environmental Justice issues. We can do better than more of the same.

My name is Samantha Krop, and I work as the Neuse Riverkeeper with the eastern-North Carolina based nonprofit, Sound Rivers. I would like to provide comment on the swine general permit and the swine farm digester general permit.

In my role as Neuse Riverkeeper, I am responsible for monitoring water quality on the Neuse and its many tributaries. This year, in the lower Neuse watershed, we have seen the largest fish kill in many years, warm water and now cold-water algae blooms turning the water blue-green with cyanobacteria — I’m here to tell you that our Neuse river is struggling, and pollution from CAFO operations is contributing a large portion of the pollution problem. 

I would like to support the comments of those who have pointed out that these one-size fits all general permits are problematic because they make it simple for industrial animal operations to pollute.

It is established that the “lagoon and sprayfield” system to manage hog waste is outdated and harmful. We know that urine and feces stored in open-air pits and sprayed on nearby fields gets into people’s homes and causes pollution of our air and our water. We know that nearby families get sick and die at higher rates than people living farther away. We also know that NC’s industrial hog operations disproportionately harm Black, Latino, indigenous, and low-wealth rural communities.

These general permits do nothing to mitigate these issues that are entrenched in the lagoon and sprayfield system — a system that was never designed to function without major impact in a coastal environment nor for today’s climate-change realities.

One major issue with these permits is that they are accessible to facilities that have historically failed to meet environmental standards. These low-bar general permits should be reserved to only the good actors who have a track record of demonstrating adherence to these permits and broader environmental standards. Facilities that have been cited for improper waste disposal, improper record keeping, and even those who have experienced spills and breaches in recent memory, are still eligible for this general permit. As a result, bad actors benefit from these permits, at the expense of locals who live nearby, and our waterways.  If facility operators cannot meet basic permit requirements and adhere to our foundational environmental regulations, then they should not be eligible for coverage under these General Permits. Please consider requiring individual permits for facilities that have been issued on NOV within the past COC.

The swine general permit should also not be issued to swine facilities that have waste storage systems located in the floodplain or floodway. A surprising number of these flood-prone facilities are still operating under general permit-issued NOV’s within the past COC cycle, then not eligible for GP coverage, including facilities that have flooded in the past. One such facility that Sound Rivers monitors is actually located in the floodway of the Neuse River, right here in Goldsboro. While this facility’s waste lagoon overtopped and flooded into the Neuse during Hurricane Matthew, the waste lagoon in the same location is covered under the swine general permit. Another 42 industrial swine operations flooded in the Neuse, Tar-Pam and Cape Fear during Hurricane Florence. These flood-prone facilities should not be covered under the swine General Permit, and at the very least be required to take additional precautions to prevent waste from entering our rivers when the next hurricane comes.

While we appreciate that the biogas permit forbids construction of animal waste collection, treatment or storage systems in the 100-year floodplain, in our most flood-prone communities, we need to be even more careful. The state of North Carolina is currently investing in flood resiliency modeling, water and sewer upgrades and work to protect from climate change. Permitting waste storage in flood prone areas undercutting those investments by ignoring the contributions of swine agriculture to flood hazard issues.

The swine general permit assumes that these facilities are non-discharge facilities, and yet Sound Rivers has documented many incidences of these facilities polluting.

A 2015 study conducted by USGS researchers found that watersheds with swine and poultry CAFOs — most of which are operating under the General Permit — had higher median concentrations of nutrients than reference groups with no animal operations. After 30 years of NSW rules, while point sources have reduced nitrogen inputs, we continue to see an increase in organic N in both the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico watersheds — and we continue to fail to meet the NSW goals for N reduction in both watersheds. Regulating CAFOs as a large Nitrogen source is a must in order for NCDEQ to adhere to the nutrient reduction goals laid out 1990s for the Neuse and Tar-Pam. DEQ has an obligation to consider all the information and not to put on blinders and provide permits without consideration of today’s conditions on the ground

In May of 2022, a swine biogas facility erupted millions of gallons of hog waste, expired meat and hog mortality into Nahunta Swamp — a tributary of Contentnea Creek located not far from here. While this facility was not covered by the biogas general permit, there are some lessons that the permits could draw from this abominable pollution event — lessons that should be reflected in the general permit language.

Firstly, manure biogas is a technical process, and it is volatile. If operators are not trained in the intricacies of managing these pressurized methane digesters, waste can leak and even erupt into nearby structures, wetlands, and waterways. The swine biogas general permit needs to require sufficient training for operators and more frequent inspections from trained DEQ officials, especially as new operations come online.

Secondly, we don’t necessarily know when things are going wrong without regular monitoring of surface and groundwaters. The Department of Environmental Quality stated that the spill at Nahunta Swamp had been cleaned up, yet Sound Rivers’ sampling results found that as recently as August, significant nutrient and bacteria pollution from the unlined waste lagoon is continuing to contaminate this waterway.  The DEQ’s own sampling later confirmed this.

The current draft of the biogas general permit does not require surface or groundwater monitoring, unless explicitly required by the DEQ. If this sampling is not required, how will the state ensure that operations are effectively maintained so as to prevent discharge to surface waters or contamination of groundwater? The process of anaerobic digestion concentrates ammonia in the remaining liquid waste, and can actually increase the impacts to our watersheds if it leaks or is oversprayed back.  Waste from these “digesters,” which can be more concentrated after methane removal, is still sprayed onto fields near communities. Manure biogas, in this process, ignores — and even increases — many of the harmful impacts from CAFOs, including increased ammonia emissions and increased risk of contaminating groundwater. These increased risks warrant greater precautions. The swine biogas permit should require rigorous upstream and downstream surface water sampling, and also groundwater sampling at facilities — in addition the quarterly wastewater sampling of digester influent and effluent currently included. 

These permits need to do better by our impacted communities. Despite the greenwashing, we know that anaerobic digestion does nothing to prevent nearby communities from water and air pollution. The public deserves to know what, when, where, and how much animal waste is being created and spread on cropland in NC communities. NCDEQ should require CAFOs to submit this information online for the record and this data should be made public.

Without these measures, these permits will further entrench a flawed system that continues to pollute our waterways and harm our communities. We can do better.

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