Late-night bill may bar NC DEQ from considering civil rights laws in hog farm permits

Hog industry officials say a regulatory reform provision clarifies permitting, but environmental advocates are worried it tries to sidestep federal civil rights laws. This photo shows barns where hogs are raised and their nearby lagoons near Faison.

Hog industry officials say a regulatory reform provision clarifies permitting, but environmental advocates are worried it tries to sidestep federal civil rights laws. This photo shows barns where hogs are raised and their nearby lagoons near Faison.

Chris Seward

An updated regulatory reform bill that legislators made public just hours before voting on it this week is raising a number of environmental concerns, ranging from the permitting process for a new natural gas pipeline to civil rights issues around the state’s hog farms.

A conference committee released the newest version of House Bill 600 Thursday afternoon, just hours before it was set for debate in the House and less than a day before the Senate voted on it.

The conference committee substitute’s changes included new sections limiting how long the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality can consider water quality certifications for projects like MVP Southgate that involve “the distribution or transmission of energy or fuel.”

It kept a section addressing animal waste management systems like hog lagoons — language that some have argued attempts to keep North Carolina regulators from considering civil rights when writing permits.

Another provision in the wide-ranging bill requires the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to prepare a human health risk assessment for 1,4-dioxane, a likely human carcinogen that has been detected throughout the Cape Fear River basin. The bill directs the N.C. Collaboratory to evaluate what technologies remove 1,4-dioxane from wastewater.

The House approved the new version 72 to 38, with five Democrats joining Republicans in support. The Senate approved it 25-16 on Friday, with those voting splitting along party lines.

Limiting hog waste permits?

A provision detailing what the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality should consider when writing general or individual permits for hog farm waste lagoons drew particular concern.

Environmental advocates argue the provision tries to limit what DEQ considers when deciding on the permits solely to what is included in state law, attempting to avoid federal rules such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Industry officials say the provision does no such thing, but simply clarifies what section of state law is used to permit the facilities.

Blakely Hildebrand, a Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney, told The News & Observer that her reading of the language is that DEQ’s only consideration when writing a permit for hog farm waste management systems can be a specific section of state law.

The implication of that, Hildebrand added, is that regulators should not consider whether permitting those facilities would have a disproportionate impact on communities where Black or Latino people live, or communities where people with lower incomes live.

“While I think there’s a very strong argument that this particular change in the law is unconstitutional, it will nevertheless send a message to DEQ that it should not comply with federal civil rights laws when issuing permits for industrial animal operations in North Carolina,” Hildebrand said.

The N.C. Pork Council, the industry’s advocacy group, says the change does no such thing.

Instead, they said, it clarifies which section of state law governs how animal waste management systems are permitted. Right now, the lagoons and digesters could be permitted under two different sections of North Carolina law, while the change makes clear that General Statute 143-215.10C is the relevant law.

“This is a minor change that simply clarifies how animal waste management system permits are issued. It does not change the way animal permits are currently issued or eliminate any existing requirements,” Roy Lee Lindsey, the Pork Council’s CEO, told The News & Observer in a written statement.

The Pork Council has long maintained that the locations of farms — and their waste management systems — do not constitute a civil rights violation. It commissioned its own study that it argues shows there isn’t a disproportionate impact on people of color. The study found that the number of Black and other people of color living near hog farms was typically lower than those living in a wider radius, but it also showed that the number of white people living around hog farms is consistently lower than the proportion of white people recorded in the 2010 Census.

In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a “letter of concern” in response to a civil rights complaint, telling DEQ that it was worried the agency’s handling of hog farm general permits may have been discriminatory against Black, Hispanic and American Indian communities.

That letter paved the way for an agreement between DEQ and environmental groups that included a temporary air study, increased engagement in the general permit process that oversees hog farms, and the development of North Carolina’s environmental justice mapping tool, among other provisions.

Since that agreement, the Southern Environmental Law Center and environmental groups have filed another civil rights complaint against DEQ, this time arguing that the agency’s permitting of biogas digesters that collect methane from lagoons on hog farms violates the civil rights of nearby communities. By allowing lagoons to be capped, they argued, DEQ is locking in a system of capturing waste in lagoons and then spraying it across nearby fields rather than considering better alternatives.

The EPA agreed to investigate the more recent complaint.

DEQ is in the midst of rewriting its general permits for hog farms, cattle operations and wet poultry facilities. That effort will also include separate permits for digesters at each kind of facility.

The permits are slated for four public hearings starting Oct. 5 in Duplin County and ending Oct. 26 with a virtual option.

During debate on the House floor just after midnight Friday, Rep. Deb Butler, a New Hanover County Democrat, warned that the Civil Rights Act and other federal laws would apply even in the likely event that the legislation passes..

“Federal law is going to continue to apply despite our efforts to sidestep it,” Butler said.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican who is one of the hog industry’s most vocal supporters, rose Friday morning to support the bill.

“The overwhelming number of our farms and livestock, our children and our grandchildren, my grandchildren, live on these farms,” Dixon said.

He did not address the specific concerns raised about whether the provision is an effort to thwart consideration of federal civil rights laws in the state permitting process.

Helping MVP Southgate

Republicans in the General Assembly have made clear that they support the MVP Southgate project that would see a natural gas pipeline extended from southern Virginia into Rockingham and Alamance counties.

Opponents have argued the project is unnecessary and would result in environmental harm to add fossil fuel resources as the state continues its transition to renewable energy.

Supporters, like many legislative Republicans, argue there is only one natural gas pipeline into the state and that MVP Southgate is not only necessary for a backup supply but to meet the energy needs of increasing numbers of residents and businesses.

The newest regulatory reform bill kept a provision giving DEQ 30 days to deem a 401 water quality certification complete, the same certification that DEQ has twice denied to MVP Southgate. It also adds new time limits to DEQ’s review of an application, giving it 60 days to decide whether a permit complies with state water quality rules if there’s no public hearing and 90 days if there is one.

The changes would also apply to dredging projects.

Rep. Mary Belk, a Charlotte Democrat, said on the floor that bill sponsors previously said the provisions are intended to help MVP Southgate.

The pipeline has a pending application in front of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to grant it special permission to complete the project in 2026, more than three years after it was originally slated to be finished. Belk noted that Cooper and dozens of legislative Democrats have opposed granting the pipeline special permission.

“I don’t think that North Carolina needs to do that, either, for that project,” Belk said.

Should FERC grant the pipeline’s construction extension, it would still need environmental permits from both North Carolina and Virginia to proceed.

This story was produced with financial support from the Hartfield Foundation and the 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.

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Adam Wagner covers climate change and other environmental issues in North Carolina. His work is produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. Wagner’s previous work at The News & Observer included coverage of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and North Carolina’s recovery from recent hurricanes. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews.

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