After years of seeking help from state officials, people living near industrial hog farms across Eastern North Carolina had their fears about health-damaging pollution and industry harassment recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA's External Civil Rights Compliance Office (ECRCO) sent a letter to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) last month stating that it "has deep concern about the possibility that African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have been subject to discrimination" as a consequence of the state's oversight of its 2,000 hog farms. The farms typically store animal waste in open lagoons and spray it on nearby fields, leading to air and water pollution.

The EPA is investigating a federal civil rights complaint related to hog farms that was filed in 2014 by the N.C. Environmental Justice Network, the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help and Waterkeeper Alliance alleging discrimination by NCDEQ based on race and national origin. The complaint alleged that NCDEQ's 2014 renewal of the general permit under which industrial hog farms operate failed to adequately control animal waste and discriminatorily subjected communities of color to noxious odors, health problems and declining property values.

Industrial hog farms are concentrated in Eastern North Carolina, the historic center of the state's African-American population and home to a growing Latino community and the state-recognized Lumbee Tribe. A 2014 analysis by UNC researchers found that the proportion of African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians living within three miles of an industrial swine operation are 1.54, 1.39 and 2.18 times higher, respectively, than the proportion of non-Hispanic whites.

In 2015, the complainants and NCDEQ entered into an alternative dispute resolution process funded by the EPA. But the complainants withdrew from that process last year after NCDEQ attempted to bring representatives of the N.C. Pork Council and the National Pork Producers Council into what were supposed to be confidential mediation proceedings. So now ECRCO is  also investigating whether NCDEQ violated a federal law that prohibits intimidating an individual or group because of actions taken to secure rights under nondiscrimination laws.

Particularly egregious instances brought to ECRCO's attention include a local industrial swine facility operator entering the home of an elderly African American woman and shaking the chair she sat in while threatening her and her family with physical violence if they continued to complain about the odors and spray.

As part of its ongoing investigation, ECRCO visited North Carolina in November and interviewed over 60 people living near industrial hog farms. Most of those interviews took place in Duplin and Sampson counties, which have the state's greatest concentration of swine operations. The investigators heard stories from residents about living with the overpowering stench, constant swarms of flies and heavy truck traffic.

"Some described feeling as though they are prisoners in their own homes," ECRCO said in its letter to NCDEQ.

North Carolina residents have been raising concerns about industrial hog farms with state officials for at least 15 years, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Though some residents told ECRCO they did not know where or how to file complaints with NCDEQ, others told investigators that doing so resulted in retaliation, threats, intimidation and harassment by hog farm operators and representatives of the politically powerful pork industry.

Residents and Riverkeepers recounted numerous nerve-racking incidents: sustained tailgating, vehicles driving back and forth in front of their homes, confrontations in parking lots and intersections, even threats involving guns and other physical violence. As the federal investigators noted in their letter:

Particularly egregious instances brought to ECRCO's attention include a local industrial swine facility operator entering the home of an elderly African American woman and shaking the chair she sat in while threatening her and her family with physical violence if they continued to complain about the odors and spray; the firing of a gun in the air when an African American REACH member tried to speak to a person sitting on their porch; and a truck that sped up and swerved toward a Riverkeeper who was standing on the side of a public road teaching a group of volunteers how to sample water from public ditches.

The NCDEQ under the previous administration of Gov. Pat McCrory (R) argued for dismissal of the civil rights complaint but didn't deny that hog farms operating under the general permit had discriminatory impacts. ECRCO rejected McCrory's request, noting that NCDEQ's responses have not "served to diminish [its] level of concern."

ECRCO is recommending that NCDEQ assess the general permit and related regulations and remedy adverse effects. It also called on NCDEQ to evaluate and adjust its policies to ensure protection of residents who provide information about environmental or civil rights complaints.

Michael Regan, the new NCDEQ secretary under Gov. Roy Cooper (D), had a letter in Raleigh's News & Observer newspaper last week in which he said his agency takes ECRCO's concerns seriously and "will take this opportunity to thoroughly explore this matter with an open mind and a fresh set of eyes."

Regan, who is African-American and grew up in the Eastern North Carolina city of Goldsboro, formerly worked in the EPA's air quality division and served as the Southeast regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund. He still faces confirmation by the Republican-controlled state Senate, though Cooper is challenging that newly-imposed requirement in court.

Some of those involved in the civil rights case see reason for hope.

"For far too long, NCDEQ has prioritized customer service for the benefit of polluters instead of environmental protection for the benefit of all North Carolinians," said Will Hendrick, staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance. "We are glad EPA shared our concerns and are hopeful that the new NCDEQ administration will view this as an opportunity to take long overdue action."