This story was published in partnership with Mother Jones.
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WALLACE, N.C. — On nice days, Elsie Herring can sink back into her porch rocking chair, enjoying the rural property that’s been in her family since 1891.
Other days, the wind carries a foul-smelling mist that chokes Herring and coats the pink siding of her home. It’s hog manure, part of life in North Carolina’s Duplin County, hog farm capital of the United States.
“It burns your eyes. You get this cough. You get this scratchy, itchy feeling in your throat,” said Herring. “You feel like you want to throw up.”
Versions of this story are playing out in communities across the country: frustrated, worried residents suffering near hog operations in Iowa, dairy farms in Wisconsin, massive cattle operations in California and Texas. Problems have been building for decades as more of the eggs, meat and milk we consume — and sell overseas — are produced by a consolidating, industrialized farming system that puts the agriculture equivalent of factories next to people’s homes.
Experts say this poses health risks, ones disproportionately felt by Black, Hispanic and low-income Americans. But the pollutants wafting from these operations are largely unregulated by the federal government.
Under pressure to act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided in the late-1990s that to enact rules, it needed to know more about the extent of air pollution from animal farms. To get that, the agency struck what critics call a no-win deal: It gave most of the nation’s largest farms legal immunity, trading away a valuable enforcement tool and undercutting residents’ right to sue — all for air monitoring that experts warned at the time would produce worthless data.
This “safe harbor” period of immunity was supposed to last four years — but it’s been 14 and counting. The deal has not resulted in any regulation, nor has it produced any air pollution data experts consider worthwhile. Some think the whole thing was designed to fail.
The years of inaction spurred the EPA’s inspector general to sharply rebuke the agency in 2017 — President Donald Trump’s first year in office — accusing it of mismanaging the program in ways that protected the industry, not the public. In response, the agency agreed to corrective action and pledged to get the effort back on track.
Under the industry-friendly Trump administration, however, the EPA has yet to live up to its pledge. A spokesperson said the agency has been delayed by technical and procedural problems, as well as a large volume of feedback from advisory groups and boards.
Researchers and environmental groups point out that the status quo keeps in place the EPA’s freeze on lawsuits and enforcement actions, benefiting animal farm operators while letting a potentially large amount of air pollution flow unchecked.
Even under the best-case scenario for those who bear the brunt of the pollution, safeguards remain years off.
“It’s just a nasty mess. I know they know this, but they still refuse to change or try to clean it up,” Herring said.
Where hogs outnumber people
The EPA has recognized for decades the need to regulate air pollution from animal farms, which have grown larger and more geographically concentrated. Packing more animals into confined quarters has economic advantages. The disadvantages fall most heavily on the people living nearby, like Herring.
Her family lived in Duplin County long before the first large-scale animal feeding operations were built. Agriculture, though, has defined the area and the lives of the people there for two centuries. When the first official census was recorded in 1790, well into the era of cotton and tobacco, about a quarter of the people living in Duplin County were Black. All but three were enslaved.
In 1891, Herring’s grandfather, who was formerly enslaved, bought a single tract of land in the county. It was a momentous transaction.
“He lived to see slavery abolished, but Blacks just didn’t own land back in those days,” said Herring, whose relatives later purchased more property there and built several houses.
The first large hog farms were built near her family’s homes in the 1970s. The growth accelerated through the ’80s and ‘90s, when an interstate highway first cut through Duplin County, connecting locally produced meat with global markets and making some agriculture businesses here among the state’s most profitable enterprises. Farm animals far outnumber people: This county of just under 60,000 was home to almost 2 million hogs and pigs in 2017.
This growth has played out in a place with lower incomes and higher shares of Black and Hispanic residents than in North Carolina or the nation overall.
A similar boom, in similar places, has echoed across the country. Even as the total count of operations in the U.S. dropped, the number of animals increased.
Over the last 30 years, the typical dairy operation went from 80 milk cows to 1,300. The typical number of egg-laying chickens on a farm soared from 117,000 to 1.2 million. Hog sales at a typical site grew 40-fold.
Today, Duplin County and the surrounding region are brimming with large hog and chicken operations. Amid the rolling hills and swampy flat lands is an interlaced web of white and gray confinement barns that glint in the sun.
Their immense waste lagoons are often hidden from view. But they make their presence known with a stench that clings to the roof of the mouth. Herring said the smell is inescapable outside and inside her home.
“I burn incense or perfume candles to try to mask the odor, but it’s still coming in,” she said.
Air pollution from large animal farms can trigger or worsen asthma, allergies and other respiratory woes for nearby residents, health problems people here complain of — along with headaches and nausea.
“I developed bronchitis,” Herring said. “I never had bronchitis before.”
People living near big animal operations also risk exposure to harmful microorganisms that could make them sick. As the coronavirus spreads, any health conditions they have become even scarier.
Most of the health and environmental problems from animal farms are tied to manure, as much as 20 times the amount of human waste produced in the U.S. Solid poultry waste, known as “litter,” is often trucked off-site and used as fertilizer. Liquid waste from hog and dairy lagoons is frequently piped to sprayers and misted over fields like the one next to Herring’s property.
Michael Formica, the general counsel with the National Pork Producers Council, said odors have historically been the most frequent complaint of those living near hog operations. But he said the loudest protestors often don’t live near a farm. “It’s people in Brooklyn and San Francisco,” he said.
Modern barn designs go a long way in reducing the bad smells, Formica said. He suggested some of what nearby residents say they experience is illusory.
“As soon as a barn goes up, whether there’s animals in it or not, people start to assume there are odors coming from it,” he said.
The data produced as the result of the deal with animal farm operators shows these emissions aren’t figments of their neighbors’ imaginations. What comes from the farms also contributes to a global crisis: Worldwide, animal agriculture is likely responsible for one of every seven tons of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
That’s warming the world, and North Carolina is extremely vulnerable to the consequences. Just since 2010, the state has been battered by six hurricanes or tropical storms, which scientists say are likely growing more destructive as ocean waters warm and sea levels rise.
Herring still has damage on her home from 2018’s Hurricane Florence, a storm that killed more than 50 people and caused $22 billion in property losses.
The never-ending study
People in rural communities across the country began having the same sort of experiences as Herring in the 1980s and 1990s. They pushed for protections. Environmental groups called for the animal farm operators to report their air emissions and petitioned the EPA to include ammonia and hydrogen sulfide on its list of restricted pollutants — toxic gases produced by animal waste — and to require large animal farms install emissions-cutting technology.
By the late ’90s, the EPA concluded it didn’t have enough data to determine which animal farms required Clean Air Act permits or if their emissions needed to be reported under other major environmental laws.
Facing a growing threat of lawsuits, farm groups approached the EPA and proposed a deal: data for legal immunity.
The EPA jumped on it. More than 2,500 farmers representing over 14,000 concentrated animal feeding operations — often called CAFOs — signed on. Under the terms of the 2005 deal, most farmers paid small fines to fund a new study of air emissions at dairy, egg, hog and poultry operations.
In exchange, farmers got immunity from enforcement actions over past violations of federal air pollution laws. They also negotiated a ban on EPA lawsuits for ongoing problems until a system was established for farmers to report air releases and obtain permits. Before that could happen, the agency reasoned it needed to collect the data and use it to create models for estimating individual farms’ emissions.
The EPA said at the time that the agreement was the “quickest and easiest way” to eliminate uncertainties and bring animal farms into compliance with major environmental laws.
Fourteen years later, the emission models still aren’t complete, and the farms remain insulated from regulation and protected from legal action by the EPA, which says it won’t consider new rules on animal farms until the models are finished.
“The industry wanted delay from compliance when they approached EPA for this safe harbor,” said Tarah Heinzen, a senior attorney at the advocacy group Food & Water Watch. “And to a large extent they’ve gotten that.”
Adam Babich, who teaches environmental law at Tulane University, said that while it’s common for the EPA to fall behind schedule, the agency’s deal with the industry “is not typical.”
“It is unusual for a compliance order to depend so completely on the EPA’s diligence in developing new protocols, such as new methods for estimating emissions. In this case, there is no incentive — other than to avoid embarrassment — for EPA to work quickly or efficiently,” he said. “There is also no incentive for an animal feeding operation to encourage prompt or efficient EPA development of the emissions-estimating methods.”
The EPA’s inspector general in 2017 upbraided the agency for the lag, suggesting it start exploring other ways of estimating air pollution from animal farms and end the immunity deal.
“If the EPA determines that it cannot develop certain emission estimating methodologies, it should notify agreement participants and end civil enforcement protections,” the IG wrote.
The EPA announced in June 2018 that it was finally finishing the emissions models. But the Trump administration has since sat on the effort.
The EPA, which declined an interview request, said in an email that it could not estimate when the emissions data will be finalized and the industry’s immunity might end. The agency released new draft models of farm emissions in August and plans to continue releasing them on a rolling basis through July 2021, a spokesperson said.
Researchers and environmental groups worry about the agriculture industry’s influence over the Trump administration as the project is finalized.
Agricultural businesses contributed nearly $2.9 million to help elect Trump in 2016 and have spent more than $3.9 million on his 2020 re-election campaign, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
The agriculture industry gives to Democrats, too, but has donated more to Republicans in every election for the last 30 years, the data shows. During the 2020 election cycle, agricultural businesses have so far contributed almost $49 million to Republican candidates, a little more than double what they gave to Democrats.
“The current administration is trying to get rid of as many regulations from an environmental perspective as they possibly can,” said Viney Aneja, a professor and air emissions expert at North Carolina State University. “The EPA has brought us clean air and clean water. But now all these regulations are being relaxed.”
Aneja and others question whether the deal with animal farm operators was doomed from the start.
Data collection for the National Air Emissions Modeling Study was completed in 2010, more than three years over schedule. The $15 million effort measured emissions of four hazardous air pollutants — ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, fine particles and volatile organic compounds — at 27 sites in 10 states.
The data suggested that most large animal farms’ emissions of ammonia are high enough to require they report it to the EPA. A few might have to report hydrogen sulfide emissions. But a decade has passed with no completed emissions models to show for it.
“I am disappointed,” said Albert Heber, who oversaw the monitoring and runs Purdue University’s Agricultural Air Quality Laboratory. “I thought we would have more data published by now, but it still can be published. It just takes time.”
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Heber attributed much of the delay to technical difficulties, challenges associated with analyzing the monitoring data and bureaucratic slowdowns as the process dragged through multiple administrations.
But from the beginning, experts warned the EPA that its approach was faulty.
Before the study design was finalized, the National Academy of Sciences said the agency’s approach to estimating emissions was inadequate and that neither it nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture was spending enough money to do the job properly.
“It was, in my mind, controversial from the start,” Aneja said. “I felt it was a ploy to buy time for the CAFO industry.”
In public comments filed when the study was proposed, environmental and agricultural groups alike said they doubted there were enough monitoring sites to generate statistically valid information. When the first drafts of emissions models were published in 2012, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board said models shouldn’t be built off such spare data.
Aneja, a member of the advisory board at the time, described the data as “appalling.”
Among the trade groups skewering the models and underlying data were the National Milk Producers Federation and the National Pork Producers Council, both of which supported the original monitoring plan.
And the EPA acknowledged in court that it could take until 2037 to finalize the emissions models and end the industry’s immunity — 32 years after it started.
The National Pork Producers Council, for its part, said this is not the outcome it wanted.
“It’s shocking how long it’s taken them to get this done,” said Formica, with the pork council. The EPA, he said, likely acted in good faith but didn’t realize how complex the monitoring study would be.
Hog producers question whether the EPA can develop valid emissions models that accurately account for the wide variety of farms, breeds of animals, diets and locations. Even if the agency can solve those problems, Formica said, it will still be relying on farm data recorded about a decade ago.
“Our feed rations and emission profiles look vastly different now,” said Formica, whose group has urged the EPA to try again with new data.
Representatives for six organizations representing dairy, egg and poultry farmers did not respond to interview requests.
Activists and environmental groups say political maneuvering at the agency set the process up for failure.
During the Clinton administration, the EPA filed high-profile legal actions and investigations against large animal farm operations in California and Ohio. “These are big operations, not Old MacDonald’s farm,” said Eric Schaeffer, then-director of the EPA’s enforcement division.
Schaeffer left the agency in 2002 to co-found the Environmental Integrity Project, a research and advocacy group. He said he did so in part due to the Bush administration’s cozy relationship with the agriculture industry. No longer was the EPA interested in pursuing enforcement actions at large animal farms, Schaeffer said.
“We laid out a lot of information about the potential hazards from these big operators and the scale of the emissions,” he said. “We didn’t get a response, we just got, ‘We’re not going to do that.’ It’s political, and there’s no way to slice that.”
A few years later, the Bush EPA signed off on the immunity agreement the industry proposed.
“I can unequivocally say that the industry did not have any influence on me,” said Heber, the scientist overseeing the monitoring study.
Even if the EPA’s regulatory effort is completed by the Trump administration, critics worry the result won’t protect public health. The administration has already weakened or dumped a broad range of environmental rules, and they fear a similar result in favor of the agriculture industry.
‘It’s just really difficult’
As the EPA’s air study dragged on, Congress could have stepped in to protect people exposed to pollution from animal farms. It went the other way instead.
In 2018, the year after a federal court said that all farms must report hazardous air pollutants released from animal waste, Congress passed an appropriations bill that exempted them from that requirement. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler enacted a rule to make that stick.
The Trump administration followed up in July by weakening the National Environmental Policy Act so that federally backed loans and loan guarantees to build or operate new animal farms no longer require environmental or public review.
The weakened federal rules peel off a layer of oversight in states where regulations are often loose and pro-farming. States have the authority to write rules limiting agriculture emissions, but they often take a hands-off approach.
Every state has a “right-to-farm” law that guards farms against legal action over routine odors, noise and other nuisances. Powerful farm groups have pressured state legislators to broaden those legal protections and enact new laws that cap payouts from lawsuits.
Herring keeps trying to get help. She testified before Congress about the deteriorating conditions near her home, led tours of Duplin County for EPA and federal health officials, and traveled to Wisconsin to speak with environmental groups working to rein in large animal operations.
She’s been an activist for decades now, but Herring said she started as a worried resident whose requests were ignored. Herring talked to farm owners and sent videotapes of pollution to state health and environmental authorities. She tried to get the local sheriff and county commissioners to act. She wrote the governor and reached out to the state attorney general.
She urged every official she encountered to enact tougher standards and require that operators install equipment to reduce pollution and odors.
“I didn’t get the change and impact people were hoping for,” she said.
The state has taken some action. North Carolina placed a moratorium on building or expanding animal farms in 1997 and made it permanent a decade later for farms that use lagoons as their primary waste treatment system. Environmental officials call its permitting system the strongest in the country and say North Carolina is one of the few states that require annual inspections of every facility.
But Herring and other residents say that hasn’t translated into significant improvements.
In interviews and a federal civil rights complaint, residents in Herring’s community say the animal farms have upended their lives. Family and church gatherings that were historically held outside have been forced indoors to escape flies and odors. Many of those who hunted, fished or gardened no longer do so for fear of contamination. And people struggled to pay for the air conditioners and clothes dryers they needed when they could no longer open their windows or hang laundry outside.
“If you’re not living this, then it’s strange to you, and you don’t know why people are so aggravated,” said Devon Hall, cofounder of the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, an organization that provides services for low-income residents and has helped research and address the health effects of the farm pollution.
The civil-rights complaint, which was filed by the environmental law organization Earthjustice in 2014, said that people who speak up have been met with retaliation and intimidation, including physical and verbal threats from farm owners and operators. One such example the complaint recounted was of a swine facility operator “entering the home of an elderly African American woman and shaking the chair she sat in while threatening her and her family with physical violence if they continued to complain about the odors and spray.”
These concerns, some residents say, are magnified by poverty and racial injustices that have left them feeling ignored or persecuted by all levels of government.
The EPA is just one piece of that, but it’s a big one. Under the terms of the immunity deal, the agency cannot file civil cases against operators over air emissions at animal farms, and it hasn’t, a Center for Public Integrity data analysis found. The agency may still pursue operators for criminal air violations — but it doesn’t seem to have done that, either, according to Public Integrity’s analysis of criminal enforcement cases.
The agency identified 37 criminal cases against animal farms since the agreement was signed, but none of them appear to involve air emissions.
Environmental organizations say the immunity and ongoing agreement also hamper groups and residents who want to file their own lawsuits. Brent Newell, a senior attorney with Public Justice who has challenged the agreement, said it can quash some citizen lawsuits because federal law bars them while the government is “diligently” pursuing an action against a possible violator.
Lawsuits alleging personal injury, rather than pollution, don’t fall under that prohibition. But the lack of finalized data on farm emissions poses difficulties.
“It’s just really difficult to get the information that citizens need,” said Food & Water Watch’s Heinzen.
That doesn’t mean no one succeeds. Herring joined dozens of residents in a 2014 class-action lawsuit against a subsidiary of Smithfield, which is owned by WH Group of China, the world’s largest pork producer. The personal injury lawsuit argued that the company was responsible for foul smells, flies, buzzards and increased truck traffic that kept plaintiffs from enjoying their homes.
After a series of trials in 2018 and 2019, a jury awarded the residents almost $550 million — promptly reduced to $98 million because North Carolina lawmakers capped damage awards. The case is still out on appeal. A Smithfield representative declined to comment.
The court victory — tenuous though it is while on appeal — has made Herring more optimistic than she’s felt in decades. She thinks it sends a message to lawmakers and big agriculture companies.
Still, Herring doesn’t believe federal or state officials will make the industry change quickly enough to protect her family. Whatever money she might get from the lawsuit, she fears, will end up going toward her medical bills.
“We’re still going to have to breathe in this stuff,” she said.
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