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North Carolinians Want to Hold Companies and Regulators Accountable for Toxic Hog Waste

Hog farms in North Carolina produce 10 billion gallons of untreated toxic waste each year—and much of this ends up in the state's waterways and neighboring fields.

These industrial operations have evaded thorough inspection for decades, but now, residents and environmental advocates are demanding better regulation. On Wednesday, neighbors of a hog farm won their lawsuit against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of the world's largest pork producer, the News & Observer reports—the fourth lawsuit the company faced this year. In all, Murphy-Brown has been forced to pay out half a billion dollars in damages to nearby residents who complain of odors, noise, and even an increased risk of death.

At the same time, environmental groups are calling for the state to change the industry's permits to allow for closer regulation. The grassroots organization Waterkeeper Alliance lobbied for a third-party moderator to help bolster pollution controls and transparency in the permits, which were up for review in November.

So far, the state's attempts to regulate the industry have focused on buy-outs, an approach that research shows has been expensive and ineffective: The moratorium on construction of new lagoons merely grandfathered the old ones in. As Pacific Standard reported in September, when Hurricane Florence flooded waste lagoons across the state:

Why has this problem plagued the state, time after time? Like the sludge, it comes from a potent mix: ineffective regulation, an increasingly industry-friendly state legislature, entrenched monopolies, and, of course, geography. (If you're going to build a receptacle for huge piles of manure, filled with hazardous contaminants, you probably shouldn't do it in a floodplain.)

However, even a stronger permit would require enforcement to make sure operators are complying. Within the state's Division of Soil & Water Conservation, this happens rarely; an Environmental Working Group report published Thursday gathered findings from neighbors' recent nuisance lawsuits, which show a pattern of failures in state oversight: The state checks in on operators just once a year—and those who do so are stretched thin, with as many as 244 operations to one inspector. And inspections may miss leaks into the groundwater below.

A North Carolina Policy Watch investigation also uncovered dozens of permit violations over the past decade, which polluted rivers with fecal bacteria and algae blooms. (For example, when operators sprayed waste on fields ahead of Hurricane Florence, many were in violation of their permits.)

"It's possible that the facility could be in violation and it's possible that we might not find out," Christine Lawson, program manager with the state's Department of Environmental Quality, said in testimony quoted in the EWG report.