A coalition of environmental groups released a series of interactive maps documenting thousands of large-scale hog, cattle and poultry farms across North Carolina.
The maps identify more than 4,000 hog waste lagoons and 14,000 poultry barns. Environmental advocates say the large amount of waste generated by confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, poses environmental and public health risks that the state government has failed to properly regulate.
"If you work and live in some of these communities that are densely peppered with confined animal feeding operations, you have to breathe this on a daily basis and drink it in your water, and that daily exposure can have a negative impact on public health," said Soren Rundquist, with the Washington-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
The maps show Sampson and Duplin counties in particular bear a heavy burden. Researchers estimate farms in those two counties produced about 40 percent of the state’s total wet animal manure from hogs and 18 percent of the dry waste from chickens.
The maps were developed by researchers from Environmental Working Group, Waterkeeper Alliance and North Carolina Riverkeeper organizations over three years using hog and cattle farm data from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. Poultry operations are not required by state law to disclose their location, so map makers scrutinized aerial photos of each county to estimate the number of poultry barns across the state.
For the pork industry, the maps are nothing new, North Carolina Pork Council Spokesman Robert Brown said in an email.
"DEQ has long maintained a detailed map of all hog farms in North Carolina on it’s website," Brown said. "And unlike poultry farms, all NC hog farms undergo a rigorous permitting process and are inspected by state officials each year. Farmers must comply with some of the nation’s toughest regulations, and any fines or violations are public record."
Representatives from the North Carolina Poultry Federation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Christian Breen, with Waterkeeper Alliance, said this is the first time data on poultry farms have been made available to the public.
"It's a good tool to have," said Breen. "It’s the only tool we have, because the state of North Carolina has let us down in providing this information and allowing it to get to this point."
The maps detail how close farms are to streams, rivers and other public water sources. Breen said the current waste disposal system of lagoons and spray fields is not sufficient to handle large amounts of hog waste, which ends up in nearby rivers and streams.
"With so many animals in a concentrated area, their waste runoff far exceeds the carrying capacity of those waterways," said Breen. "You see extreme high levels of nitrous, phosphorus, fecal coliform [bacteria], that at high concentrations can be hazardous to humans."
The maps also break down the distribution of CAFOs by census block group. Advocates say this shows they are disproportionately concentrated in poor, rural communities with large minority populations.
"They were put there specifically because those communities didn’t have a voice," said Breen. "You do not see hog facilities at golf courses in affluent white communities. You see them in minority, low income communities."
A coalition of environmental groups including Waterkeeper Alliance filed a complaint in 2014 with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights. They allege the state’s permitting of hog farms discriminates against minority communities in Eastern North Carolina.
Breen and others want to see the companies that profit from the CAFOs close the open lagoons and instead invest in on-site water treatment systems to handle the billions of gallons of waste produced each year.