The EPA Doesn't Know How to Deal With 300 Million Tons of Animal Poop

The EPA delays promised rules to control the waste

A hog feedlot in Duplin County, N.C.

Photographer: Travis Dove for Bloomberg Businessweek

Rene Miller grew up on a seven-acre slip of Duplin County, N.C., where her mother, Daisy, raised corn, chickens, and hogs. Now, what was a neighbor’s tobacco farm across the narrow two-lane road is a field where a giant sprinkler sprays waste from an industrial hog-raising operation onto whatever happens to be planted there—corn, hay, soybeans. The force of the liquefied manure is so strong it splatters the street sign Miller installed to mark Daisy Miller Lane. “I can’t go out in my yard to watch the cars go by. I can’t put my clothes out on the line,” she says. “It stinks.”

Duplin County has the nation’s highest concentration of industrial hog farms, with about 2 million pigs and 60,000 people. Environmental groups estimate the state’s 8 million hogs produce about 14 billion gallons of waste a year. Nationally, according to the most recent report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, feedlots for cattle, dairy cows, hogs, and poultry produce 300 million tons of manure a year.

Baby pig

There are about 2 million pigs in Duplin County (none as cute as this one).

Photographer: Pam Francis/Getty Images

The problem is how to dispose of it. In the swine facilities, hogs in groups of more than 20 are put into stalls with slats in the floor. Their feces and urine go through the openings and out pipes into open-air lagoons that can hold 180 days worth of waste. The industry says the holdings allow bacteria to break down the waste and gobble up pathogens. In its ideal state, the wastewater becomes free fertilizer for adjoining crop fields. “The application of waste is something that’s become more and more popular because it’s recycling,” says Kraig Westerbeek, who oversees environmental compliance at Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor, which has contract farms and packing operations in North Carolina.

Yet nutrient-rich runoff from spray fields like the one across from Miller’s farm also nurtures algae blooms that choke rivers by depleting them of oxygen. North Carolina has seen blooms in the Cape Fear River and fish kills in the Neuse River since hog feedlots moved in 30 years ago. The farms “are inarguably the biggest source of nutrients to the coastal region,” says Larry Cahoon, a University of North Carolina at Wilmington professor who studies water quality in the Cape Fear River. “Are the creeks and streams showing the effects of nutrient loading? Yes.”

In 2010, after being sued by the Waterkeeper Alliance and other environmental groups, the EPA pledged to reconsider a rule issued during the George W. Bush administration exempting feedlots from having to disclose hazardous emissions to the agency and the public. Five years later, the EPA hasn’t done anything about it. On July 13 agency lawyers went back to court and said the regulations wouldn’t be changed after all.

The Obama administration had early on signaled a different approach. Lisa Jackson, Obama’s first EPA chief, pledged to crack down on water violations and make public more information about problems. (Jackson now oversees environmental initiatives at Apple.) The president’s first appointee to oversee the agency’s water quality office had been Nancy Stoner, an environmental attorney who’d sued the EPA to win tighter regulations on animal feedlots. Stoner left the EPA in 2014 to become director of water programs for the Pisces Foundation. She declined to comment.

The EPA says it’s focusing on taking action against livestock producers that break the rules. “We are committed to civil and criminal enforcement for the cases that have the highest impact on protecting public health and the environment,” Liz Purchia, an EPA spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “At the same time, we’re providing states with guidance and resources to help them.”

Former EPA officials say the agency faces a hostile Congress urging it to go easy on the animal farms. Budget cuts have also constrained its ability to act. The EPA is also preoccupied with implementing carbon emissions rules, a top White House priority before Obama leaves office. Agency data show that its inspections and fines of feedlots, known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), dropped to a seven-year low last year, with 26 enforcement actions compared with 71 in 2008. A study of animal air pollution has dragged on for decade. While the study continues, thousands of CAFOs continue under a safe-harbor accord guaranteeing they won’t face any fines from the EPA for air pollution.

In June, the U.S. Geological Survey published a study on nutrient and pollution levels in streams near hog operations, comparing them with those far from feedlots. “Land applications of waste manure at swine CAFOs influenced ion and nutrient chemistry in many of the North Carolina Coastal Plain streams that were studied,” the researchers concluded. In other words: CAFOs polluted the water. The North Carolina Pork Council disputes those findings and commissioned its own analysis of the USGS data, concluding that soil type, not the number of hogs, determined the amount of nutrients reaching streams.

For farmers, keeping up with the constant flood of waste is an issue. The Waterkeeper Alliance has documented hog farmers spraying on fallow and frozen fields and even on cattle as they grazed. Spraying also occurs on rainy days, despite regulations that are supposed to limit spraying during wet periods, when more effluent washes into waterways. “What they can put on the fields depends on average rainfall,” says Rick Dove, a longtime Waterkeeper activist who’s been tussling with hog farmers for decades along the Neuse River, which runs through the heart of North Carolina hog country before emptying into the Pamlico Sound.

The expansion of North Carolina’s poultry industry is adding to environmental hazards. While the total number of hog lagoons has been capped since the late 1990s, chicken production has grown by more than 42 percent to 795 million birds last year from 559 million in 1992. From a small airplane above Duplin County, it’s easy to spot the long, metal-roofed buildings for chickens. Poultry doesn’t produce as much liquid waste, but its litter is also spread on fields and can release nitrogen into groundwater or waterways.

Residents say they don’t think anything will change without the federal government’s involvement. “EPA needs to do what it should do, because we’re living with this on our land,” says Elsie Herring, who lives in Wallace, N.C., next to a field where the liquefied manure is sprayed. Former regulators say it’s much harder to deal with agricultural runoff than factories. “The idea of treating a farm like a DuPont chemical plant is not good government or good business,” says Sally Shaver, a former EPA official who consults with the hog industry on environmental issues. “I don’t think there would be problems if these things didn’t stink.”

The bottom line: The federal government hasn’t made progress on promises to reduce the environmental impact of animal feedlots.

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