Community groups appeal administrative law judge Donald van der Vaart’s decision to side with Smithfield on water pollution
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Environmental Justice Community Action Network and Cape Fear River Watch appealed Chief Administrative Law Judge Donald van der Vaart’s decision to uphold permits that allow Smithfield-owned hog operations to use giant pits of untreated hog feces and urine to produce gas while spraying the harmful waste on surrounding areas in New Hanover County Superior Court, without adequate pollution controls. These permits continue a long history of water pollution and harm to nearby families, a disproportionate share of whom are Black, Latino, and Native American.
The four permits authorize hog operations to use a dangerous and polluting system of open lagoons and sprayfields for their hog waste. Emissions from industrial hog operations in Duplin and Sampson Counties are already responsible for over 175 premature deaths every year, according to a study published by the National Academy of Sciences, and the process of producing and collecting gas can make the hog waste more polluting when it is transferred to open pits and sprayed into the surrounding environment. These permits are also the subject of an ongoing civil rights investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, launched after the Duplin County branch of the NAACP and the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign, also represented by SELC, filed a petition challenging the permits’ discriminatory impact on communities of color in Duplin and Sampson counties.
“We believe the decision from Office of Administrative Hearings was wrong on the law and, if allowed to stand, threatens our waterways, the air we breathe, and the communities we serve,” said Maggie Galka, vice chair of the board for Environmental Justice Community Action Network (EJCAN).
“For too long, industrial hog operations have fouled our rivers and streams with devastating pollution and fish kills,” said Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper. “We will keep fighting to stop Murphy-Brown’s dangerous pollution and make DEQ enforce our anti-pollution laws to protect everyone.”
This appeal is the latest step in the groups’ efforts to ensure that DEQ protects the environment and families living nearby and downstream when issuing permits for biogas.
“For decades, DEQ has failed to put in place common-sense and legally required protections for families and the environment,” said Blakely Hildebrand, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We want to ensure that DEQ fulfills its obligations to North Carolinians as the agency issues permits for biogas now and in the future.”
In April 2021, on behalf of the Environmental Justice Community Action Network and Cape Fear River Watch, SELC challenged the four state permits because DEQ violated state law by failing to require less harmful alternatives for producing gas from hog waste and failing to address cumulative effects of water pollution from these and other industrial agricultural operations in the Cape Fear River Basin. In issuing these permits, DEQ violated its responsibility to prevent water pollution.