It’s Well Past Time for Environmental Justice in North Carolina

Community organizer Elsie Herring works to protect rural communities from the negative impacts of industrial hog facilities.

(From left to right) Lana Carter, Raeford Bennett, Elsie Herring, Elizabeth Haddix, Larry Baldwin and Naeema Muhammed explain to staffers at North Carolina Congresswoman Alma Adams’ office how severely industrial swine facilities disrupt rural lives.
(From left to right) Lana Carter, Raeford Bennett, Elsie Herring, Elizabeth Haddix, Larry Baldwin and Naeema Muhammed explain to staffers at North Carolina Congresswoman Alma Adams’ office how severely industrial swine facilities disrupt rural lives. (Alexis Andiman/Earthjustice)

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Editor’s note: Our food choices have far-reaching consequences.  In a previous blog post, we estimated how much the industrial food system costs us each year by quantifying the system’s effects on public health, communities, and the environment.  This time, Earthjustice invited Elsie Herring to explain how large-scale animal agriculture affects her daily life, and what she’s doing to fight back. 

Elsie Herring is a community organizer in Duplin County, North Carolina—an area with so many industrial hog facilities, it has come to be known as the “Hog Capital of the World.”  Elsie has been a vocal advocate for her community since the mid-1990s.  In recognition of her efforts, she received the 2009 Florenza Moore Grant Environmental Justice Award from the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.  In partnership with the UNC Center for Civil Rights, Earthjustice is proud to represent Elsie and other members of her community in a race discrimination complaint filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  

When Hurricane Matthew triggered heavy flooding in North Carolina last month, some newspaper editors and reporters raised concerns about the serious dangers of concentrated, large-scale swine production. For my neighbors and me, who live near swine confinement houses and open-air cesspools of hog urine and feces, these concerns are nothing new. We’ve been fighting for clean air and water for more than 20 years, but the people in power still aren’t listening. That’s why more than 20 of us travelled to Washington, D.C., in October to tell Congress and the U.S. EPA to do their jobs by keeping us safe and protecting the environment. 

I live in Duplin County, North Carolina, on land that my family has owned for more than a century. We used to be able to hunt and fish in the area, but that changed a few decades ago when industrial swine facilities arrived in our community. Duplin County is now home to hundreds of these facilities, housing more than two million confined pigs. The facility owners store swine urine and feces in giant pits, which the industry calls “lagoons,” before spraying the waste across nearby fields.       

One of these “sprayfields” is only a few yards from my front door, and the nearest facility is less than a mile from my mother’s house. For more than 20 years, I have complained about this facility to everyone from my local sheriff to the United States Department of Justice. About 15 years ago, the company that supplies hogs to the facility planted some trees between the sprayfield and my house. Those trees and a few other changes were supposed to make life easier for me and my family, but we are still suffering. I can still smell the terrible, raw odor of hog manure and rotting animal carcasses. I can’t keep my windows open or dry my laundry outside because the wind carries sprayed waste onto my property. It’s difficult for me to exercise or enjoy time outdoors.  

I feel like a prisoner in my own home.

Over the years, I’ve worked with community organizations and scientists like University of North Carolina professor Steve Wing to learn how industrial swine facilities threaten my community’s health and well-being. Swine confinement houses, lagoons and sprayfields release dangerous pollution into the air, including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds, bacteria, live viruses and particles of feces. In addition to the terrible smell, this pollution can cause serious health problems, including asthma, high blood pressure, headaches, nosebleeds and persistent coughs. My neighbors and I have suffered these symptoms.

Industrial swine facilities also contaminate our water. After these facilities came to my neighborhood, I switched to using county water because I worried that the water from my shallow well was no longer safe to drink. Most of my neighbors stopped fishing in nearby waterways after people started catching fish with infections and open sores.    

In 2014, Earthjustice filed a civil rights complaint with the EPA. Earthjustice and the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights are representing the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help and the Waterkeeper Alliance. The complaint alleges that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by giving permits to industrial swine facilities without requiring safeguards to protect the health and environment of communities like mine.

Allowing these factory hog facilities disproportionately harms African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. In fact, a recent analysis showed that African American, Latino and Native American residents in rural areas of eastern North Carolina are almost one and a half times more likely than white residents to live within three miles of an industrial swine facility. Over the past two years, my neighbors and I have worked with Earthjustice and the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights to build a strong case to support this complaint. The EPA has started an investigation, but we need environmental justice now.

When we visited EPA and congressional staff members in Washington, we delivered nearly 95,000 signatures from people across the country who are urging the EPA to investigate our civil rights complaint promptly and to include local residents in developing a solution. I’m hopeful that the agency will. We should have the opportunity to make things right in our community—before the next environmental disaster.  

About this series

Fertile Grounds is a blog series that examines the challenges and opportunities in ensuring access to healthy, sustainable and affordable food for all. We talk about the entire lifecycle of food—from seed selection and planting to consumption and disposal—because there is potential for improvement throughout. We’re informed by the expertise of our many clients and allies and by Earthjustice’s years of work to ban harmful pesticides, encourage sustainable farming methods, reduce pollution, support farmworker justice and promote a healthy relationship between farmers and communities.