Duplin County residents call for transparency, better reporting from livestock farms

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Calls for greater accountability and concerns about the Cape Fear River's water quality were issued by members of two different environmental groups during a recent public input session about food-animal permit renewal in Duplin County.

Jeannie Lennon of Wilmington, mother of three, grandmother of seven and a member of the Cape Fear River Watch board of directors, told North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) officials Tuesday about her family's dependence on the river.

"All of us drink water from the Cape Fear River," Lennon said at the session at James Sprunt Community College in Kenansville, hosted by the DEQ and attended by about 300 area residents. "So, obviously, I'm very concerned about the quality of that water and also about the pollution in the air that my grandkids are breathing. I'm here today to request that the permit that you all issue requires far better reporting of the way the swine waste is handled."

Waterkeeper Alliance staffer Will Hendrick, when it was his turn at the microphone, called for greater accountability and transparency under the food animal permits up for renewal.

"I believe that folks deserve to know what's going on in their communities," Hendrick said. "And I would observe that despite the record-keeping requirements that the producers currently have to comply with, the resulting records stay on site. And there is no public transparency whatsoever as a result."

Waterkeeper Alliance was one of three grassroots environmental groups that last spring reached a settlement with the North Carolina DEQ over regulatory oversight of industrial swine operations, protections in communities near animal facilities and various environmental impacts. The agreement was intended to resolve civil rights complaints that had been filed by the state DEQ in 2014 and 2016.

Cape Fear River Watch was not part of that settlement.

Tuesday's gathering was to allow for public comments about proposed updates to the state's livestock permitting process.

"Nearly all North Carolina swine farms, as well as wet poultry and cattle, are subject to the requirements of their respective state general permits," the state DEQ said in a press release issued Friday about that ongoing public input process. "Comments obtained through the comment period and meetings will inform the final permit language."

There are about nine million hogs in North Carolina, making the state the second-largest pork producer in the United States behind Iowa. In Sampson and Duplin counties, hogs outnumber people by about 30 to one, according to an industry website.

The resulting environmental concerns have long been the subject of litigation, investigation, legislation and regulation in the state.

Lennon said she advocates more detailed reports by producers on the state's large hog-production centers.

"I'm in favor of at least monthly electronic reports that should be mandated and that detail what's in the cesspools and the accumulated pools, the time and location of any spraying that's done and the results of any soil monitoring of the fields," she said.

Hendrick referred to existing forms and requirements, urging that they be more thorough and also made publicly available.

"I believe that transparency is important and I believe that if you're compliant with your permit, then you have nothing to hide," he said. "I also believe that accountability is critical and, as such, I support the additional monitoring requirements that have been proposed."

The next meeting for public input about the permits is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26, at the Statesville Civic Center in Statesville, according to a state DEQ press release. Doors are scheduled to open at 5:30 p.m.

The comment period ends March 4. Public comments may be submitted in person via the meetings, via email or snail mail, according to the press release.

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