The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) recently issued an updated general permit for industrial hog farms in the state, which has the nation's second-largest swine inventory after Iowa and a longstanding pollution problem related to the farms' waste management practices.

Applying to operations that house at least 250 hogs and dispose of the animals' waste using open-air pits and sprayfields, the new five-year permit has some provisions environmental advocates praise. For example, it requires groundwater monitoring near hog waste pits in the 100-year floodplain and will make the results public. That provision, which would apply to about 60 farms out of the 2,100 covered by the permit, represents the first time North Carolina has required groundwater monitoring related to animal waste. The new permit also bars spraying of hog waste on fields when wind could carry it to neighboring properties.

But environmentalists say the revised permit represents incremental progress when systemic change is needed, noting that experts have been urging an end to the risky pit and sprayfield system for decades. In addition, they object to the fact that the agency granted the permit for five rather than two years, and say it doesn't do enough to address the risk of waste spills during major rain events, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change.

They're also speaking out about the permit's failure to address environmental justice concerns despite promises the state made last year when settling a complaint brought under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits federally funded programs from discriminating on the basis of race or national origin. The hog industry is concentrated in Eastern North Carolina, a center of the state's African American and Native American populations and home to a growing number of Latinos. Research has found that nonwhite communities in the state bear an unequal burden of hog farm pollution and related health problems, including anemia, infant deaths, kidney disease, and septicemia.

"The EPA expressed concern in 2017 that these operations have a disparate impact on communities of color," said Lower Neuse Riverkeeper Katy Langley Hunt. "North Carolina's DEQ is able to deny permit renewals based on that disparate impact, yet it did not. Instead, it's allowing a blatantly unfair and dangerous industry to manage waste in the exact same way, in the exact same places that it always has, unfairly and illegally extracting a disproportionate cost from communities of color."

EPA's 'deep concern'

After the state issued the previous swine permit in 2014, the N.C. Environmental Justice Network, the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH), and Waterkeeper Alliance filed the Title VI complaint alleging that NCDEQ discriminatorily subjected communities of color to noxious odors, health problems, and declining property values. The complaint led to a settlement process that took a rancorous turn when NCDEQ, then under control of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, brought pork industry representatives to what were supposed to be confidential mediation proceedings. Viewing the intrusion as an attempt to intimidate, the complainants' attorneys filed a retaliation complaint.

Then in February 2017, with McCrory replaced by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and NCDEQ headed by Michael Regan, a former environmental advocate and the first African American to hold the position, the EPA's External Civil Rights Compliance Office wrote to NCDEQ about its "deep concern" about the possibility that African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have been subject to discrimination related to the state's oversight of hog farms. Noting the new leadership at the state agency, the EPA asked for a meeting about "how to move forward on a constructive path."

A month later, NCDEQ and the environmental groups returned to mediation, emerging in May 2018 with a settlement agreement that included air and water quality testing in select counties. It also included a pledge by the agency to "develop a more robust Title VI program governing all DEQ activities, including a method to assess potential community impacts related to agency decisions."

Environmental advocates had hoped the agency would honor its Title VI pledge in the new general swine permit. When NCDEQ held public hearings about permit revisions in February, it heard concerns about environmental justice and calls to take a more thorough view of cumulative impacts of pollution on communities, as noted in the hearing officer's report released earlier this month.

In recent years, as advocates have noted, there's been an influx of industrial poultry operations in Eastern North Carolina that's increased the pollution burden on some rural communities. For example, Eastern North Carolina's Duplin and Sampson counties, where almost half the population is nonwhite, now lead the state in both hog and poultry production.

The need for fair permitting

But NCDEQ dashed advocates' hopes that the permit would take environmental justice into account. The report from the permit revision hearings offers the agency's official response:

The conditions in the General Permits are intended to protect all communities and public health and the environment. Cumulative health impacts are not currently in the Department's purview. Cumulative impacts to water resources are in the Department's purview and are considered in statute, rule, and in the permit condition within these general permits.

The Department is currently in the process of developing a Community GIS Mapping Tool intended to be used for departmental educational purposes. The tool is not intended for regulatory purposes. Delaying the general permit or shortening the permit's duration in order to incorporate the community mapping tool is not a viable option.

The agency's final recommendation, according to the report? "No changes." Like the previous permit, the new one does not address environmental justice concerns.

"Not only has the agency failed to do what it promised to do under the agreement, but DEQ is refusing to make necessary changes to address the discriminatory and cumulative impacts that these swine operations have on our communities," said Naeema Muhammad, NCEJN's organizing co-director and a member of NCDEQ's Environmental Justice and Equity Board, which was formed last May shortly before the settlement was announced.

The state's longstanding failure to provide relief for neighbors suffering from hog farm pollution has led some to turn to the federal courts for relief. In recent years, juries have ruled five times in favor of plaintiffs who sued Murphy-Brown, the subsidiary of Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods that owns the hogs housed on the farms. There are 21 remaining cases, according to AgWeb.com.

Feeling the pressure, Smithfield Foods last fall announced that it planned to cover most of the hog waste pits on its North Carolina farms within a decade and install equipment to capture the methane and sell it to power companies. While the industry claims that approach would reduce the chance of structural failure during storms, environmentalists are skeptical. The Southern Environmental Law Center, for example, has said the biogas capturing plan fails to protect farms' neighbors from pollution and could even make the problem worse.

Meanwhile, environmental groups from the local to the national level are calling on NCDEQ to take environmental justice into account when considering future permits.

"DEQ must create a robust environmental justice tool that measures the total burden of pollution on communities, and it must use that tool to make fair permitting decisions," the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement. "A proper tool must also account for pollution coming from more than just the swine facilities."