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An aerial view of White Oaks Farm in Wayne county, North Carolina, which produces more than 46.5 million gallons of waste per year and has two "waste lagoons" on site. (Photo: EWG-Waterkeeper Alliance)

Pools of Waste: Landmark Analysis Exposes Factory Farming Filth

The analysis makes clear: 'Animal feeding operations are degrading the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of rural residents.'

Deirdre Fulton

A new and unsavory analysis by Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Waterkeeper Alliance sheds light on the true impact that industrial factory farms are having on communities and waterways in North Carolina and beyond. 

On Wednesday, the groups released a set of first-of-their-kind interactive maps revealing the locations, size, and waste outputs of more than 6,500 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) across North Carolina, leading researchers to what they call "an inescapable conclusion: Animal feeding operations are degrading the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of rural residents."

Among the data presented in the EWG–Waterkeeper maps and accompanying report, Fields of Filth:

  • 10 billion gallons of wet animal waste (swine and cattle) are produced each year in North Carolina, the equivalent of 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
  • Annually, poultry operations in the state produce more than 2 million tons of dry animal waste.
  • 4,145 waste pits make up 6,848 acres of North Carolina's countryside.
  • 37 waste pits are within a half mile of a school.
  • 288 waste pits are within a half mile of a church.
  • 136 waste pits are within a half mile of a public water well.
  • 170 waste pits are within the state's 100-year floodplain.
  • Poultry housed in CAFO facilities outnumber residents by 20 to 1.

These facilities and their poorly regulated waste disposal systems "send disease-causing microbes and toxic chemicals into surface water and air," the report says—killing fish, contaminating drinking water, and raising the risk for respiratory problems, among other health impacts.

"With the public record exemption afforded by state regulations, the [poultry] industry has exploded throughout this beautiful region, and these maps finally show just how extensive that growth is."
—Sam Perkins, Catawba Riverkeeper

Indeed, the analysis shows that Duplin and Sampson counties—which alone produced about 40 percent of the state's total wet animal manure and 18 percent of the dry waste—"are beset with numerous air and water quality problems," the groups point out. 

"Animal agriculture operations are one of the leading sources of water and air pollution in the country and are making people sick," said Ken Cook, president and co-founder of EWG. "These maps show for the first time, that thousands of CAFOs and the animal waste they produce are often adjacent to communities and vital water sources."

For instance, added Sam Perkins, the Catawba Riverkeeper:

We have 1,000 poultry houses in the Catawba River basin in North Carolina. With the public record exemption afforded by state regulations, the industry has exploded throughout this beautiful region, and these maps finally show just how extensive that growth is. Many of these operations cannot even take the simple measure of covering their waste piles with a simple tarp to prevent runoff. Downstream of many of these sites, the Catawba River is dammed into lakes, which serve as major regional drinking water reservoirs and provide tens of billions of dollars of property tax base critical to local economies. The toxin microcystin produced by harmful algal blooms—like those seen in eastern North Carolina and in Toledo, Ohio—fueled by nutrient runoff from these sites, would be disastrous for the Charlotte region.

Armed with the new data, aerial photos, and a better informed public, the groups will now push policymakers toward more effective regulation of industrial agriculture.

"For far too long, North Carolinians have been kept in the dark about the true impact these industrial factory farms are having on communities and waterways," said Marc Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance. "Information is power and now that these sites are definitively identified, we will hold accountable the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for enforcing the Clean Water Act and fixing these massive pollution problems."


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