Zirpoli: Who is the EPA protecting?

The next time you hear someone complaining about unnecessary environmental regulations, point them to North Carolina and the environmental disaster millions of citizens there face. As a result of lax state environmental regulations and new EPA rules favoring polluters, the health of a million North Carolina citizens is at risk.

According to The Wall Street Journal, “Floodwaters have caused the worst damage to North Carolina’s hog farms in nearly two decades, with more than 5,000 animals dying and several dozen waste lagoons releasing pollutants into waterways.” In response, environmentalists are calling for hog farmers to relocate waste lagoons out of floodplains.


One might think that there would already be regulations against animal waste lagoons in floodplains. Also, since the failure of these lagoons means a flood of pollutants into waterways that flow across state lines and into the Atlantic Ocean, you might hope the EPA would have regulations to protect us. You would be wrong on both accounts.

Bob Edwards from East Carolina University said that many waste ponds were relocated after Hurricane Floyd (1999) when 21,000 hogs drowned, and after Hurricane Matthew (2016) when 2,800 hogs drowned, but there are still dozens of them in floodplains. In just one waste lagoon, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality reported that more than 2.2 million gallons of animal waste has spilled. Farmers have reported that 13 of their waste ponds are overflowing and that 55 of them are close to the brim. The NCDEQ has stated that it has not inspected most of the 3,300 waste ponds on 2,100 farms because flooding has made many of them inaccessible. The data collected, so far, are self-reported by farmers who have access to their property. The full environmental damage is likely to be worse than these early reports.

According to state officials, each spill has the potential to contaminate ground water with pathogens like salmonella, insecticides and pharmaceuticals. Researchers at Duke University wrote in the North Carolina Medical Journal that people who live near waste ponds have higher rates of infant mortality, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia and have more hospital admissions.

In addition to hog waste, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated that 3.4 million chickens and turkeys have been killed by Florence. Sanderson Farms reported that 60 of their chicken houses were flooded and that dozens more, home to about 211,000 chickens each, can’t be reached for inspection. Then there is the problem of chicken and turkey waste picked up by flood waters.

Why doesn’t the state require these structures to be built outside flood zones and to withstand repeated hurricanes? One could look to the North Carolina Pork Council, a powerful lobby for the hog industry. Its mission, according to the council’s website, is “to promote and educate to ensure a socially responsible and profitable North Carolina pork industry.” I know how they define “profitable,” but how do they define “socially responsible”?

The EPA announced that it was “monitoring hog lagoons and coordinating with state regulators, as needed, to assess impacts to downstream drinking water.” What good is monitoring and assessing a disaster after the fact? How about a little prevention by regulating the placement and structure of these facilities?

Then there is the coal ash problem. Coal ash is the by-product of coal-burning plants. The ash is frequently stored in ash ponds. North Carolina Public Radio stated that “North Carolina has more than 30 such sites in 14 different locations.” The EPA has found that living near these ponds increases the risk from lead, arsenic and other cancer-causing agents.

Early assessments by Duke Energy have found that at least some of its coal ash in waste pits has been inundated with floodwaters and has spilled into the Cape Fear River, which flows 200 miles into the Atlantic. According to The Washington Post, the EPA, under acting director Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, finalized this past July a new rule “empowering states to certify whether coal facilities meet standards for coal ash disposal sites and to suspend groundwater monitoring in certain areas.” These new rules, according to the Post, “undid” a 2015 rule “under President Barack Obama that increased inspections and monitoring of these pits.” The Obama rules were in response to a 2007 EPA study finding that people dependent on well water near unlined ash pits “have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking arsenic-contaminated water.” Meanwhile, according to USA Today, “arsenic levels 18 times higher than state standards” have already been measured in the Neuse River, the source of drinking water for the city of Goldsboro, North Carolina.