Flood-prone counties in eastern North Carolina, already home to vast swine farms, have seen massive growth in the size and volume of industrial-scale poultry operations over the past eight years, according to a new a study released by a coalition of environmental advocacy groups.
The study, conducted by Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group, found the number of chickens and turkeys in Sampson, Duplin and Robeson counties went from an estimated 83 million to 113 million since 2012, an expansion of 36 percent. That's more than twice the growth in poultry farming for the rest of the state in the same period, according to the study.
The three counties sit in North Carolina's floodplain and have large Black, Latino and Native American populations who already contend with the stench coming from nearby industrial hog farms contracted to Smithfield Farms, an international pork processing concern. Nuisance lawsuits in recent years over those conditions have resulted in damage awards in the tens of millions.
But while hog waste is regulated — swine farms are subject to inspections; farmers must submit waste management plans and there has been a ban on new large-scale hog farms in North Carolina since 1997 — poultry waste is not.
"There's no meaningful attempt to track the waste, much less track and mitigate its effects on surrounding communities and natural environments," said Will Hendrick, a senior attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance.
The environmental groups had to rely on satellite imagery and ground-level investigations to measure the growth of poultry farms, Hendrick explained.
"Although the state keeps a list of permitted facilities, unfortunately, as I mentioned, poultry operations are not permitted," he said.
In response to a WUNC inquiry, a spokesperson with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services said in an email they do not track data for individual counties but that overall growth of poultry operations in the state amounts to three percent per year, or 30% over the past 10 years.
For now, unregulated, ammonia-rich poultry waste — referred to as dry litter — can be set aside in piles that sit on farms for around two weeks before being carted off and spread on fields as fertilizer. Environmental advocates say this practice endangers water, air and soil quality for neighboring, predominantly minority communities.
"Meaning that this is not just an issue of environmental concern but an issue of civil rights," said Hendrick.
The new study estimated poultry farms in the three counties could produce a million tons of waste per year, an amount 4,500 times the weight of the Statue of Liberty and almost a fifth of all poultry waste statewide.
The groups behind the study want state legislators to examine the effects of large-scale poultry farming in North Carolina and to authorize environmental quality officials to regulate the disposal of waste from these operations.
State Sen. Harper Peterson (D-New Hanover) backed a 2019 bill to study the issue but it was blocked by the Republican majority.
"They think, again, it's a very prosperous industry, it's good for our economy so any scrutiny is unwelcome," said Peterson.
Peterson said he hopes to revive the issue in next year's session, after the November elections.