Aerial photo shows a hog-waste lagoon in Columbus County. Photo courtesy of Cape Fear River Watch

Editor’s note: This article was initially posted on Jan. 14, 2022. It was updated at 3 p.m. on Jan. 18, 2022, to include a comment from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

A civil rights complaint last year over the impact of large-scale hog operations in North Carolina on minority communities garnered the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which said Thursday it would investigate.

In a letter to one of a group of agencies that filed the complaint, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Lillian Dorka, director of the EPA Office of General Counsel’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office, wrote that the EPA has decided to investigate after conducting a preliminary review of the complaints and that the decision doesn’t reflect the underlying merit of the complaints.

Dorka said the EPA will specifically investigate whether the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality discriminated on the basis of race and national origins against residents of Duplin and Sampson counties in issuing permits for several hog operation waste management systems, including one that was designed to produce renewable energy.

In previous reporting from Carolina Public Press, outside experts were highly critical of the choice of that type of system for operations in southeastern North Carolina.

Dorka said the EPA will also investigate whether DEQ has implemented sufficient safeguards to protect residents in those areas, including people who may not communicate in English.

The SELC, along with Duplin County Branch of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign, filed the complaint with the EPA in late September.

They pointed to permits DEQ issued in April 2021 to four operations owned by the major meat producing company Smithfield. The complaints warned that a disproportionate number of families living near these sites were Black and Latino.

Responding Friday to the EPA’s decision in a press release from the groups, Duplin County NAACP President Robert Moore said, “We are excited that the EPA decided to investigate this complaint.

“As a ‘watchdog’ for those most negatively impacted by the hog industry, we consider the investigation of this complaint a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, we also understand that there is much more work to be done.”

William Barber III of the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign voiced a similar response.

“EPA’s decision to investigate the disproportionate impacts of these permits on North Carolina’s poor and communities of color is crucial in maintaining robust commitments to environmental justice in our state,” he said. 

“Real solutions to our climate crisis must serve all communities, including the most vulnerable. We look forward to the EPA’s findings.”

DEQ spokesman Josh Kastrinsky said Monday his agency is reviewing the EPA letter.

“DEQ is committed to the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all North Carolinians and we have given significant priority to compliance with Title VI requirements, particularly with regard to animal waste permitting,” Kastrinsky said.

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