What is environmental justice?

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, ethnicity, or income. The national movement to address systemic racism and discrimination began in 1982 in Warren County, N.C., when Black residents protested a landfill in their community.

What are cumulative impacts?

Cumulative impacts are the combined effects of multiple polluting industries and other stressors on the health, well-being, and quality of life of an individual, community, or population. The EPA calls this “cumulative impacts,” meaning “the total burden—positive, neutral, or negative—from chemical and non-chemical stressors and their interactions that affect the health, well-being, and quality of life of an individual, community, or population at a given point in time or over a period of time.”

What’s around us?

Swine industry (hogs)

Sampson and Duplin counties are the top two hog producing counties in the country. Industrial facilities are disproportionately in Black, Latinx, and Native American communities. Tens of billions of gallons hog waste per year goes in lagoons, which emit noxious gases and odors. This waste can seep into groundwater or overflow during heavy rains, causing surface water pollution and wildlife deaths. Waste is also sprayed on fields to fertilize crops.

Poultry industry (turkey, chickens)

Sampson County is the number one producer of turkeys in N.C. Poultry CAFOs are disproportionately in Black and Indigenous communities. Waste is turned into a dry litter and stacked in piles for fertilizer, and dry waste operations don’t need a permit. Rain can wash waste into local waterways.

Biological natural gas, or biogas—a process where organic waste is broken down to collect methane and convert it into natural gas for electricity—is growing in the area at major hog and poultry farms.

Enviva wood pellet mill

Biomass energy produced from wood is popular in Europe and growing in the U.S. In 2016, Enviva built a processing plant near Clinton to produce wood pellets for this process. Treatment plants make noise, truck traffic, air pollution, and dust that coats houses and cars and can lead to respiratory illnesses. Logging has led to forest degradation and contributes to flooding in the U.S. South: At least 75% of Enviva’s wood comes directly from local forests—many near the Black River.

Sampson County landfill

Eight miles west of Clinton in Snow Hill, is the state’s largest landfill. Currently 1,300-acres, it accepts waste from across the state, including construction debris, commercial yard waste, and animal manure. It has taken in toxic sludge from the Chemours facility in Fayetteville, which produced GenX. The landfill emits odors residents describe as “greasy, oily, like decaying flesh.” Water testing by EJCAN, UNC Chapel Hill, and Appalachian State found that homes on county water are not contaminated by the landfill.


Potential pollutants

Each industry listed has air and water pollution risks and health impacts. Experts say there is not enough research yet to determine what the cumulative impacts of all of these are. Below are the nutrients, chemicals, and other matter that can lead to health or environmental issues. 

Ammonia (NH3): Found in air, water, and soil. High levels of ammonia can irritate and burn the skin, mouth, throat, lungs, and eyes. Very high levels can damage the lungs or cause death. Pregnant women and infants under six months are at higher risk. Hog waste is rich in ammonia; when it is found in water or sprayed into the air, it can result in irritation or long-term respiratory effects. 

Lead: Typically results from seeping from corrosion of household pipes. The EPA regulates lead  (10 mg/L) but experts say there is no safe level of lead. Lead poisoning symptoms may occur slowly, but exposure to high levels may cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage.

Methane: Methane is generated by decomposing matter, such as swine and poultry CAFOs and landfills. It is highly flammable. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Fine particulate matter: This is a vague term for air pollutants that contain microscopic solids and liquids that harm human respiratory systems. This can include waste molecules from swine operations or wood dust particles from wood pellet operations. In the case of wood pellets, a community study conducted in 2016 and 2017 before and after the placement of the Enviva processing plant in Sampson County found a 75% increase in fine particulates in the after the plant was in operation. The levels measured are well above EPA allowed limits and can result in increased cases of asthma.

PFAS: A widely used, long-lasting family of chemicals that break down so slowly they’re called “forever chemicals” and are found everywhere—food products, the environment, plastics, in our blood. PFAS has been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and high blood pressure in adults, as well as development delays in children.


Environmental Justice Community Action Network: info@ejcan.org or search “EJCAN Network” on Facebook

North Carolina Environmental Justice Network: info@ncejn.org | ncejn.org

North Carolina Conservation Network: www.ncconservationnetwork.org | 919-857-4699 | info@ncconservationnetwork.org

Your voices

“The first thing we know is that hurricanes are getting worse and they’re getting more frequent in response to climate change. And scientists are pretty confident that’s a trend ounty breach, the lagoons fail and all the contents of all those lagoons rush out in this kind of flood of hog waste. The floodwaters [from hurricanes can] contain enormous amounts of swine and poultry waste. And so people can get sick from that. People can get sick cleaning out their homes and yards after the storm, if they’re in those floodwaters that have really high levels of bacteria and other viruses and pathogens and heavy metals and all the things that are associated with factory farms.

Wood pellets can make this flooding worse. They’re just clear cutting huge swaths of land in Sampson County, at headwaters of the Black River which flows into Cape Fear. And that’s exacerbating the flooding which then exacerbates the problems related to factory farms and junkyards getting flooded. I’ve seen it with my own eyes: You clear cut an area and then the water table in that area immediately rises.”

—Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper.

“I was born here and I was raised here in Snow Hill, maybe less than a mile from the landfill. We used to run free on the weekends. Moms and dads said ‘listen did you finish your chores?’ ‘Yes, sir. Yes ma’am’ ‘Get outta this house.’ And that’s what we did. We played basketball. We found a water hole in the woods and it was safe there. We would fish. We could go around any place and find grapes that grow wild. And they were so sweet. You could find plums. Wild strawberries and doberries and walnuts. I finished school in 1974 and left to join the army. What I heard the landfill was going to be, my neighbors were saying it was going to be a golf course. And when I got back in 1976, it was a different place, the landfill changed everything. And on top of that you have the hog houses. I wouldn’t allow my daughter to swim in the water; I don’t trust it. The smell is so bad from the landfill. And from the hog houses. There are buzzards going in people’s houses. My auntie had a house and the buzzards went in and on top of her house and the whole porch collapsed. At one time, I would wake up in the morning and I’ve got trash all over my yard. I shouldn’t have to get up every morning or every so often and pick trash off my year. It’s not right.”

—Ellis Tatum Sr., Snow Hill resident who lives near landfill and hog farms

“I live in a community called Way Cross Community. I live about 15 miles South of Clinton and about 12 miles from where they’re saying the biogas plant is going to be located. And from some of the facilities that they say they’ll be getting the biogas from, I probably live about five miles, it might not be that far. There may be some hog farms that are maybe a mile from me, but those hog farms were not one of the ones noted for getting biogas.

I’ve been really interested in finding out about the water, about seeing the possibility of our community being able to get county water. Right now I have well water and there’s just a lot of complications with well water. Health reasons. Some people in the community have real bad odors in their water. I know sometimes I have a slight odor in my water. 

Another problem that we have oftentimes depends on the shifts of the wind, there may be an odor in the air from the hog farms. And obviously that means that the air is not clean and we’re not breathing good, fresh, clean air. I can’t describe it, it’s just a bad odor. It’s a waste odor. It’s just like sometimes when you’re in Clinton and you smell them processing Smithfield Packing. It’s not that often because I don’t live that close that I smell it on a daily basis. But I do smell it.”

—Valerie Merritt, Way Cross resident who lives near hog facilities