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RIVERKEEPER WIN: DEQ fines polluting hog operation

Environmental, Sound Rivers

Posted on December 8th, 2022

Espuma hecha de cerdos muertos, desechos de mataderos y carnes caducadas. (NCDEQ)

This week, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality issued a $34,520 penalty against White Oak Farms, an industrial hog operation in Fremont.

The penalty stemmed from a May 2022 incident in which a hog-waste lagoon cover used to harness biogas exploded, releasing millions of cubic feet of nutrient- and bacteria-laden foam. The foam — a byproduct of the decomposition of hog waste, food waste such as hot dogs and deli meat, and dead hogs — spilled into nearby Nahunta Swamp.

“We are grateful that White Oak Farms, a facility with a longstanding history of permit violations and mismanagement, is being held accountable for the major pollution event they caused,” said Samantha Krop, Sound Rivers’ Neuse Riverkeeper. “We hope to see the Department of Environmental Quality do more to address facilities that continue to violate water-quality laws and step in to prevent such disasters from occurring in the future.”

Sam discovered the explosion during a routine fly-over in August, more than two months after the incident. With the exception of a small legal ad in a local paper, neither DEQ nor the facility publicized the incident.

Read the article about the initial discovery of the spill here.

In 2013, DEQ authorized White Oak Farms to expand from 5,550 hogs to 65,550 hogs so long as the facility used cutting-edge technology to address water- and air-pollution problems typically caused by large industrial facilities. However, the facility has been out of compliance with environmental regulations for several years, and the mixture of materials being fed into the lagoon prior to the May 2022 incident was not in compliance with the facility’s approved permit, according to DEQ.

The $34,520 in civil penalties assessed against White Oak Farms is a result of the May 2022 incident, as well as long-standing violations of its permit, including failure to conduct air and water quality monitoring, contributing excess food waste and mortality to the digester system, and failure to maintain the system in a way that prevents discharge of pollutants to waters of the state. More information about the civil penalty assessment can be found here. It is the third-largest fine DEQ has issued against a swine CAFO in the past six years.

“Enforcement should be swift and strong in instances like this where the polluter misled the public and harmed our waterways.  We look forward to hearing more about DEQ’s approach to this facility moving forward,” said Blakely Hildebrand, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

White Oak Farms recently applied for a renewal of its water permit, which expired in October, and is currently awaiting a response from DEQ.

Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell said she was encouraged by DEQ’s action, but believes more should be done.

“It’s for sure pretty hefty in the world of DEQ fines, however, in my mind, fines should be high enough to discourage operators from violating a permit,” she said. “If it’s cheaper and easier to violate your permit and get caught and fined than it is to comply, then that’s not much of a disincentive.”

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