Court Documents Reveal Woefully Lax Inspections of NC Factory Farms

Top State CAFO Inspector: “It’s possible that the facility could be in violation and it’s possible that we might not find out.”
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For Immediate Release: 
Thursday, December 13, 2018

WASHINGTON – Court documents obtained by the Environmental Working Group detail shockingly lax oversight by state inspectors of North Carolina’s animal factory farms.

Testimony by Christine Lawson, the top official in charge of overseeing inspections of the state’s approximately 2,200 swine operations, details a systemic and dangerous lack of oversight. 

These newly revealed court documents come at a critical time for state residents struggling with the tsunami of bacteria-laden feces, urine and animal parts generated by industrial livestock production, as the state prepares to renew its regulations for swine feeding operations.

In lawsuits brought by residents who live daily with the stench, filth and pathogens of nearby animal feeding operations, damning testimony by Lawson, who is program manager for the animal feeding operations program in the state’s Division of Water Resources and the Department of Environmental Quality reveal:

  • Absent a once-a-year inspection, complaints from citizens or self-reporting by producers of their own violations, the state has no way of knowing whether an animal feeding operation is in compliance with its operating permit.
  • Far too few inspectors are attempting to oversee far too many animal feeding operations. One region with 731 swine operations has just three inspectors.
  • Inspections that should take two to four hours to be thorough are sometimes completed in 45 minutes or less.
  • Inspectors aren’t allowed to examine the barns where the waste comes from.

In her testimony last July during a case brought against Smithfield by residents who live near two of the company’s swine operations, Lawson admitted that factory farms could be in violation 364 out of 365 days a year and her office would have no idea. “It’s possible that the facility could be in violation and it’s possible that we might not find out,” Lawson testified.

The inspection documents and Lawson’s testimony detail other problems resulting from lax regulation, from sludge buildup in waste pits to liquid manure drifting far from the farm fields it is sprayed on.

The revelations from Lawsons’ testimony are hardly new. North Carolina’s failure to protect its citizens and resources adequately from the animal feeding operations industry’s animal waste spans decades.

After Hurricane Floyd, in 1999, the state drafted an ambitious program for reform that went largely unmet. Floyd was followed, in 2016, by Hurricane Matthew and earlier this year by Hurricane Florence. Each storm brought the flooding of manure pits and the saturation of thousands of acres with animal waste, dispersing toxic substances through waterways and into the ocean.

Each time, Smithfield and other big producers could have adopted practices to make animal feeding operations more secure, but the state’s toothless regulations and lax enforcement gave them a pass.

“These documents show what many residents struggling to live next to industrial factory farms have known for years,” said EWG Senior VP for Agriculture and Natural Resources Craig Cox. “North Carolina’s politically powerful pork and poultry industry profits while putting public health at risk as state regulators turn a blind eye.”

“But thankfully there’s an opportunity for North Carolinians to make their concerns known to government officials before the swine permit is renewed,” Cox said.

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The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.