Poultry Factories in Floodplains Don’t Make Sense

From your Lumber Riverkeeper:

I’m worried. In recent years, we’ve seen more storms, more extreme rainfall totals, and more floods than in previous generations.

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew brought a 1,000-year flood to Lumberton. A mere two years later, Hurricane Florence hit us with another 1,000-year storm.

The last few years have traced the outlines of what the next few decades will look like here, and when it floods here, there’s plenty on the ground to pollute the water.

In Robeson County, we have to plan for a future that’s worse than both our present and our past.

Economically, we continue to struggle. Our per capita income is way below average, while one-quarter of our neighbors are living in poverty.

Like many poor rural communities, industrial meat operations have landed hard in Robeson. In the seven years ending in 2019, our county saw the greatest increase in the number of poultry operations of all North Carolina’s 100 counties. The number of chickens and turkeys here increased by 80 percent, during that time, to 24 million.

These new poultry operations are massive, more like factories than farms.

Consider two recently built operations: One has 48 barns; the other has 58. Most factory poultry operations raise five cycles of birds from chicks to slaughter-ready each year. If these new operations follow that pattern, it means they can raise at least 18.5 million chickens in one year.

That means that each year these two operations would produce about 500,000 tons of poultry waste, a combination of dry waste, feathers, and bedding.

All that waste can, legally, be kept in uncovered piles for up to 15 days at a time (though inspections are rare, and citations even rarer). Then the waste is trucked to cropland, where it’s spread. The state requires no measurements of whether the soil can absorb all the phosphorus and nitrogen from all that poultry waste.

Recordkeeping requirements about where waste goes aren’t enforced. As a result, the reports tell us where only about four percent of the estimated 5 million tons of poultry waste generated annually in North Carolina actually ends up, a Waterkeeper Alliance analysis found.

That’s one of the reasons why poultry operations were the state’s largest and fastest-growing source of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from animal waste in 2017 — and the state’s poultry population has only grown larger since then.

Mix all that waste with floodwaters, as happened during Matthew and Florence, and the devastation becomes dangerous to our health and the health of our waterways.

The regulations on this industry do little to protect people like my neighbors and me.

Poultry operations, of any size, can open almost anywhere in the state with little more than a building permit. In practice, they’re often located in the poorest communities, where the people have the least power.

One of the only reasons I knew in advance about the factory operations I mentioned earlier is that they were some of at least eight in Robeson County that required the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine whether the land was a protected wetland.

Although one area was continually wet and had characteristics of a wetlands complex, and another area was in the 100-year floodplain, the poultry operations were allowed.

Think about that for a moment. In an area that’s as prone to flooding as ours is, our government representatives are allowing companies to cut trees and build on our wetlands — the wetlands that would normally soak up some floodwaters — so corporations can profit.

This is typical of an industry where the profit all goes to the owners, but the risk is partially borne by the public. About 4.1 million chickens or turkeys drowned or starved after Hurricane Florence. North Carolina taxpayers spent $11 million composting dead birds or sending them to landfills.

The lesson for our future is clear: We have to do things differently. We have to think ahead, we have to plan for the next disaster, we have to prepare. 

We need to pass a bill about where these operations can be located. For starters, it’s clear they have no place in the 100-year floodplain. For those already on the floodplain, we need to start thinking in terms of what the state has done in the past with hog operations and buy them out to get them out of the way of the next flood.

I do believe that Robeson County’s future can be brighter than its past. One step towards that brighter future is making sure there aren’t millions of tons of chicken and turkey waste here, sitting in piles, waiting for the next flood to sweep them into the waters we all share.

Contact your Lumber Riverkeeper, Jeff Currie, for more information and join us as a member so we can continue to fight to protect the Lumber River and all our local rivers.

Winyah Rivers Alliance

P.O. Box 554
Conway, SC 29528
843 .349 .4007

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