While activists have focused on the public health issues posed by North Carolina’s pork industry, poultry farms have enjoyed rapid, unchecked growth, particularly in coastal areas already threatened by hog-waste disposal methods, according to a new report from the Environmental Working Group and the Waterkeeper Alliance.  

The report, released Wednesday but previously obtained by the INDY under an embargo, says the state ignored the proliferation of poultry operations for more than a decade, resulting in dense concentrations of poultry and hog farms and a lack of oversight of waste-management practices. 

Poultry farms outnumber hog farms two-to-one in North Carolina, with more than 735 poultry farms added since 2008. The state is now home to at least 515 million agricultural birds. Nearly a quarter of the new poultry operations are in Duplin and Sampson Counties, which also house 43 percent of the state’s hogs. Ninety-three percent of the poultry farms there are within three miles of at least twenty other pig or poultry farms. 

Cramming these operations together exacerbates the environmental problems posed by these industries, says EWP spatial analysis director Soren Rundquist. 

“This area is well-known for this contentious relationship with the folks who live there and the hog industry, and the fact that it’s being piled upon with the poultry industry growing—it’s pretty eye-opening to me,” Rundquist says. “It’s ground zero, but they’re still adding insult to injury.” 

Unlike the hog industry, whose farms store liquefied hog feces in unlined dirt pits the size of Olympic swimming pools, most poultry farms produce what’s called dry waste—a combination of chicken feces, feathers, sawdust, bedding, and dead chickens—which is stored in massive piles. The “litter,” as it’s called, is then spread over fields as fertilizer or burned for energy. 

Poultry farms that use dry waste systems—all but seven in the state as of 2013, according to the Department of Environmental Quality—don’t need a state permit, and the DEQ doesn’t inspect them unless there’s a complaint. So, although the waste is only allowed to remain uncovered for fifteen days, the report says, that rule goes unenforced. The state doesn’t require those farms to report the volume of litter they’re producing, the composition of the waste, or where the litter is disposed of. 

(The remaining farms use a wet waste-management system, in which waste is stored in ponds and discharged into fields, similar to hog farms’ standard method.) 

Dry waste poultry farms follow a waste-management formula—essentially, how much waste can be applied to fields as fertilizer—that’s based on the number of birds on a property. It doesn’t take into account nearby poultry and hog operations and the nitrogen and phosphorus they produce, says Bob Ford, executive director of the North Carolina Poultry Federation.  

Other than having some farmers add litter-storage sheds, Ford doesn’t believe additional measures are necessary to protect the environment. 

“If you go by the nutrient-management plan, that plan includes the number of birds you are growing,” Ford says. “That’s just the way it is. Nothing else you can really do.”  

That’s not good enough, says Waterkeeper Alliance attorney Will Hendrick. A shed doesn’t prevent over-application of fertilizer or runoff. As with hog waste, hurricanes and other flooding events can wash the waste into waterways and groundwater. Last fall, Hurricane Florence flooded thirty-five poultry operations in the state. 

The DEQ is currently reviewing its waste-management standards for hog farms. As part of that process, the EWG and the Waterkeeper Alliance are calling on lawmakers to stop “turning a blind eye” to the poultry industry and to impose stricter regulations.

Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss by email at ltauss@indyweek.com, by phone at 919-832-8774, or on Twitter @leightauss.