Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Livestock waste lagoons, black cowboys, & skeptical miners

The room was packed on Tuesday for a Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality hearing in Pike County, Mississippi. For the second time in two months, residents of the county showed up to voice their opposition to a poultry farm planned in the area. 

State regulators approved the farm permit anyway—a decision that locals say they’ll appeal because they are worried about environmental and health effects from the farm, which is set to be built in a predominantly black community. 

They have evidence to back up those fears. Industrial farming produces millions of pounds of largely untreated waste—often kept in massive, open-pit lagoons near the farms—which become major sources of air pollution. The manure and other waste byproducts release ammonia, particulate matter, and methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide. It can lead to respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis, high blood pressure, and allergic reaction symptoms like runny noses and eyes. The lagoons are also sources of groundwater contamination, since they can easily overflow, leak, or flood.

Many of these farms are located in low-income communities of color. It’s an environmental justice issue that has been covered extensively over the last two decades since people in eastern North Carolina have filed multiple lawsuits over odor and pollution from major hog farm operations. One 2014 study showed residents near the lagoons are 1.5 times more likely to be people of color. North Carolina officials recently resolved a years-old complaint of environmental racism, closing a civil rights case and promising stricter oversight of industrial hog farms blamed for polluting air and water. The state said it will perform an air quality study in Duplin County, where many of the farms are located, and expand water monitoring.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean things will change. The laws surrounding agriculture operations’ waste are not well regulated, and they’re getting more lax under the current administration. Attached to the omnibus spending bill signed into law in March was a rider that frees many livestock operations from having to report airborne toxins manure emits. Pork, beef, and chicken groups heavily lobbied the law. According to Mother Jones, it was relatively easy to pass because the EPA doesn’t have a way to monitor emissions from these “concentrated animal feeding operations.” In essence, the new rule means people living near farming operations have less of a chance to know about the pollutants around them. In North Carolina alone, 160,000 people live within a half-mile of one; nearly a million people could be in a zone affected by air pollution.

The poultry industry is Mississippi’s most lucrative agricultural commodity. According to the latest data, it employs 25,000 people across the state and generates billions of dollars a year. That’s on track to grow as the state invests more heavily in it. Mississippi-based Sanderson Farms is currently expanding its operations in Smith County; the company isconstructing a processing plant, a feed mill and a hatchery with a plan to process 250,000 chickens a day. The project, expected to be completed in 2019, has caused major concern about odor and pollution.  

The industrial livestock industry also expanding in other Southern states. Tyson is buildinga $300 million chicken plant in West Tennessee after it faced heavy opposition in Kansas.Last year, Wayne Farms announced plans to expand its Alabama poultry facility by more than 100,000 chickens a day. And that means more waste: for example, in 2015, Alabama reported 1 million tons of chicken waste a year, much of which was sprayed onto farming operations, increasing nitrates in water supplies that lead to health problems.

In recent years, some of the cases against major agriculture companies have resulted in fines and settlements. But the agriculture industry is a powerful lobbying force—one that has influenced environmental and health regulations for decades. Along with relaxing regulations at the federal level, the industry is working at the state level to do so as well: for instance, Tennessee lawmakers have repeatedly introduced a bill to allow some livestock farms to operate without state water quality permits.

Though many Mississippians are eager about the jobs that farms will create and the money it will bring to the state, expanding industrial farming will undoubtedly add more emissions, take up more land, and put more vulnerable people at risk. Before that happens, lessons could be gleaned from North Carolina’s troubles. Even with years of attention on the industry’s failures there, and the promises made to improve conditions, little has been done to hold the industry accountable. In late April, a federal jury awarded 10 neighbors of a hog farm $750,000 in compensation, plus $50 million in damages to punish Virginia-based Smithfield Foods for smells, noise and other disturbances from its hog farm operations. It was a landmark decision. Smithfield called it an “outrageous attack” and announced it would appeal the verdict. A week later, a judge drastically reduced the sentence.

Stories worth your time

Speaking of hog waste: a first-of-its-kind microgrid in North Carolina runs on hog waste turned into biogas, solar, and battery energy storage. Southeast Energy News reports on how the microgrid can power the hog farm where it’s located, some neighbors’ homes, and parts of the larger grid.

Ex-coal baron Don Blankenship was defeated by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in the West Virginia Republican primary election this week. This Rolling Stone piece takes on the mainstream media’s treatment of the election. “There is no room for nuance, no tolerance for complex and contradictory realities, in our political discourse now,” Bob Moser wrote. “There are only heroes and villains, blues and reds, friends and enemies. And everybody knows which side West Virginia comes down on. Except they don’t.”

Photographer Rory Doyle shines a spotlight on the little-known world of black cowboys and cowgirls with a photo essay and article in Bitter Southerner. ” I want to show that there’s more than just white cowboys,” one cowboy told Doyle. “But at the end of the day, it’s not about black cowboys and white cowboys. It’s about being equal.”

NPR interviewed Appalachians on the promises made by President Trump to bring back mining jobs. It offers perspectives from a diverse group of Appalachians: former and current coal miners, descendants of coal miners, people who want to leave coal country, a black man from Lynch, Kentucky, an LGBTQ couple. Some are skeptical about coal’s future, others are excited by potential opportunities. “It’s not an easy life here,” one coal miner said. “But I think it’s about the best life you can have.”

An investigation by The Lens found that actors were paid $60 to $200 each time they showed up to meetings to support Entergy’s proposed gas-fired power plant in New Orleans. They were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements and told not to speak to media. Entergy denies claims they paid the actors.

News flying under the radar

A Louisiana judge ruled the state Department of Natural Resources broke the law when issuing a permit for construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline and said the permit must be reconsidered, and the company must develop emergency response and evacuation plans for areas the pipeline runs through.

Arkansas regulators approved a $4.5 billion wind energy project with a wind farm and transmission line that will bring power to Oklahoma and parts of Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Sunny day flooding is going to become much more common along the East Coast. Here’s a rundown of studies showing how North Carolina will fare in the coming years.

A federal appeals court heard arguments this week about whether West Virginia has abandoned its responsibility to write cleanup plans for streams polluted by mountaintop removal mining. A judge ruled in 2017 that state regulators dragged their feet on cleanup plans.