Senate Bill 315, commonly known as the Farm Act of 2019, was the latest of these types of bills which generally provide relief and protection to the agricultural industry. Under current leadership, farm bills have been used to prop up Smithfield Foods, which owns 90% of the state’s hog farms. 2019’s farm bill was no exception.
Section 10 of Senate Bill 315 made confidential certain Soil and Water Conservation Commission documents which were previously public. Smithfield has been the target of a raft of federal nuisance lawsuits in recent years, with plaintiffs winning millions of dollars of damages against them, in part by using the kinds of records this bill now hides from public view. Transparency is crucial to protecting public health.
- “According to a 2009 environmental sociology text, at the industry’s peak, millions of gallons of hog waste entered the state’s eastern waterways every week.”
- Floods from Hurricane Floyd (1999), Hurricane Matthew (2016), and Hurricane Florence (2018) caused hog waste lagoons to overflow into North Carolina waterways, further exacerbating the issue.
- New lagoons must be built with clay liners, but loose regulations allow lagoons without liners to remain in operation, letting noxious gases, heavy metals, and pathogens to seep into the groundwater. During floods, farmers empty the slurry onto nearby fields that eventually wash into our waterways.
In 1997, the state put a moratorium on issuing permits for the construction, expansion, or modification of hog farms that use old, polluting open waste lagoon and sprayfield waste disposal systems. Although well-intentioned, exemptions in the policy led to 73 new, 25 expanded, and four reactivated hog farms in North Carolina over the next 10 years, while existing lagoons remained in operation and continued overflowing. Despite a 2007 bill to extend the ban for two years and to call for legislative study of new manure-handling technologies, North Carolina hog farms continue to predominantly use spray fields and open hog lagoons to store waste.
Section 11 of Senate Bill 315 allows permits for modifying those waste operations as long as they do not expand their hog production capacity. This loophole essentially permits existing hog farms to skirt the 1997 and 2007 moratoriums by not improving their waste management systems.
Ultimately, we had concerns about this bill because of Sections 10 and 11, but we understood the need for legislators to support other provisions in the bill that help farmers, and did not oppose its final passage. After a year of amendments, the bill passed its second conference report on June 3, 2020, in the House (86-34), June 4, 2020, in the Senate (39-9), and was signed by Gov. Cooper on June 12, 2020.