Waste Not



The pollutants and odors from large industrial hog and poultry farms don’t respect property lines. They waft over the flat landscape of eastern North Carolina, through homes and churches belonging primarily to low-income blacks and Latinos. Hog waste washes into streams and rivers and soaks into the high water table. When the wind blows, the stench is unbearable. And people get sick.

Environmental justice organizations in the state have been organizing for reforms in the livestock industries and regulation since at least the mid-1990s, but a recently filed Civil Rights complaint against the state’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) and a lawsuit against pork producer Smithfield Foods may be the biggest moves activists have made to date.

Three groups, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, and the Waterkeeper Alliance, argue that DENR violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits the federal government from funding any organization, public or private, that discriminates on the basis of “race, color, and national origin.” DENR, they claim, does not protect the mostly black and Latino residents who live close to hog farms because it fails to enforce regulations in place to protect human health – for example, a rule that says hog farmers can’t spray waste on surrounding fields within a certain period of time before a forecast rain. The lawsuit takes a complementary approach, targeting the large pork producer Smithfield in an attempt to force it to abandon the most popular method of managing waste: storing it in open pits and spraying it on fields.

Lawsuits and civil rights complaints of this nature are long-term, extensively researched projects that involve community members, academics, scientists, and attorneys. Their potential power lies in their collaborative spirit. Community members in particular have extensive firsthand experience of the problem, the deepest knowledge of the inner-workings of the community, the greatest ability to rally friends and neighbors to action and the most at stake.

Their guidance is not just helpful; it is necessary, and it drives the process. North Carolina’s rich tradition of community organizing for social and economic justice is part of the new social history that rejects the “Great Men” narrative – the one that tells us that the greatest events in our nation’s history were planned and executed solely by larger-than-life men. The work of environmental justice organizations is such a powerful narrative because it has been compiled by dozens, if not hundreds, of community members and allies. It is a partnership built on mutual respect and the desire for justice. Compelling stories, coupled with grassroots organizing and legal action, have the potential to make significant change in how DENR and the livestock industries do business in North Carolina.