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“The smell of money” — that’s what pork producers have long called the revolting odor of pig waste that permeates the air in eastern North Carolina, where hogs outnumber people by as much as 35 to 1. But to many Black, Latinx, and Indigenous residents who live near the state’s giant pig farms, the smell is more associated with nausea, anxiety, breathing problems, and racial discrimination.
Industrial pork production exploded in eastern North Carolina in the late 1980s and early ’90s, as mega facilities that each house thousands of animals displaced small farms. Ever since, residents have been fighting for their rights to clean air, clean water, and a life free from the stench of the 10 billion gallons of waste the state’s 8.8 million pigs produce each year.
In January, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched an investigation into a discrimination claim brought by an NGO representing several community groups. The inquiry seeks to answer whether or not the state’s environmental department racially discriminated against residents when permitting several hog factory farms to convert their waste into fuel.
The EPA’s probe is the latest development in a decades-long battle in North Carolina against what residents affected by factory farm pollution say is a form of “environmental racism,” a term used to describe the disproportionate impacts of pollution — whether from agriculture or urban power plants — on communities of color.
That fight faces an uphill climb. Big Meat is king in the state’s culture, politics, and economy. In 2020, North Carolina ranked second among states in pork production, third in turkey production, and fourth in chicken production. It supplies not just the US but the rest of the world — 25 percent of the state’s pork is exported to China, Mexico, Japan, Korea, and other countries. But that pork and poultry production — and the environmental impacts that result from it — are highly concentrated in poverty-stricken counties with high Black, Latinx, and Indigenous populations.
“This is home and I love it,” Carl Lewis, a Black barber in Bladen County, North Carolina, told me in an interview for The Smell of Money, a documentary I’m producing on the issue. Lewis’s barbershop is near a hog farm and “sprayfield,” where hog manure is discharged into the air over cropland via a machine that looks like a giant sprinkler. “But the hog farm over there,” he added, pointing toward the 12 metal buildings and three waste lagoons behind a patch of pine trees, “there’s flies, smell, trucks, noise. It’s really bothersome. I don’t think people have moved because most of us are poor and can’t afford to do that.”
Impacts on communities like Lewis’s have been well documented since the 1990s and include everything from poisoned wells and diminished property values to shortened lifespans, as well as higher rates of physical and mental health problems for residents.
“One of the most disturbing stories that I’ve heard people talk about is the sensation of actually feeling the spray, the fecal waste, raining down on them,” says Courtney Woods, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, who has studied these effects. “They see it on their cars, on their homes … and outside of that, just feel outraged. There are associations with stress and anxiety that we have studies to demonstrate.”
In the spring of 2020, massive Covid-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants shined a spotlight on the daily hazards associated with killing and chopping hundreds to thousands of animals per day: cuts and amputations, dangerous chemical exposure, and repetitive stress injuries. Those hazards are borne by a predominately Black, Latinx, and immigrant workforce.
But as North Carolina’s example shows, the meat industry’s harm to vulnerable communities starts long before the slaughter plant. Look further back in the supply chain, and it’s evident poor communities of color disproportionately pay the price for the world’s cheap bacon and chicken.
How factory farms pollute the air and water (and how they get away with it)
Though meat’s contribution to the climate crisis is under increasing scrutiny, on-the-ground pollution caused by factory farms receives comparatively scant attention, even though about 12,700 premature deaths are caused in the US each year from animal agriculture air pollution alone — more deaths than those caused by coal-fired power plants, according to one recent study.
Waste from factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), is typically stored in massive, open-air pits or mounds, and then sprayed or spread over cropland as fertilizer. In theory, these systems are meant to recycle nutrients contained in the waste, like nitrogen and phosphorus, back into crops. But in practice, animal feces and urine regularly make their way off the farm and into the surrounding environment.
Poultry waste, a dry “litter” that looks like wood shavings mixed with excrement, blood, feathers, and feed, and is usually stored in big piles outdoors, can wash away in the rain or blow away in the wind. Pig waste pits often leak or overflow, especially during strong storms and North Carolina’s intense hurricane season.
Pollution can lead to algal blooms — an overgrowth of algae that can produce toxins and deplete oxygen levels in waterways — as well as massive fish kills. Groundwater contamination is an especially concerning problem in rural areas where some residents drink well water and where accessing county lines that could provide untainted water costs money people often don’t have.
“We had wells, but the wells [were] contaminated from the hog farm,” says Delores Miller, a resident who lives just a few hundred feet from a hog CAFO lagoon and sprayfield in Duplin County, North Carolina. “The smell, you can’t hang your clothes out, you can’t do nothing in the yard, and we won’t even talk about the yellow flies.”
Children who attend schools near CAFOs in North Carolina experience higher levels of asthma and wheezing compared to those who attend schools farther from CAFOs, and residents within one and a half miles of CAFOs report elevated blood pressure; eye, nose, and throat irritation; difficulty breathing; nausea; and chest tightness, problems that worsen as the odor worsens. One study found that eastern North Carolina residents who live near factory farms experience higher rates of asthma, anemia, kidney disease, infant mortality, and infections compared to rural residents who don’t live near CAFOs, even controlling for other factors like poverty.
Though the social and environmental harms wrought by CAFOs are decades old at this point, existing anti-pollution laws provide little relief. The federal Clean Water Act requires the EPA to hold factory farms accountable, but the agency primarily regulates only the largest CAFOs (for hog farms, that’s CAFOs with more than 2,500 pigs over 55 pounds, or more than 10,000 pigs under 55 pounds). The EPA allows factory farms to use the problem-prone waste storage and disposal practices described above, and doesn’t require CAFOs to monitor the pollutants they release into waterways.
The EPA also leaves much of the enforcement for the regulations that are on the books to state governments, but state agencies often lack the resources or political will to monitor water pollution, and they seldom crack down on violators with any real force.
Air pollution from CAFOs is also largely unregulated; in 2005, the EPA entered into what environmental advocates call a sweetheart deal with thousands of CAFOs, agreeing not to enforce air pollution regulations as long as the meat industry paid for a study of the problem. The EPA planned to use the resulting data to complete an analysis of the industry’s role in air pollution and then begin enforcement. But nearly two decades later, it still hasn’t.
Environmental justice advocates say tight ties between the industry and legislators make progress difficult. “We have legislators that is so deep into the pockets of these dirty industries; they can’t get out, even if they wanted to,” says Naeema Muhammad, senior adviser for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.
Since 2000, meat companies, meat trade groups, and individuals linked to the meat industry have contributed more than $5.6 million to North Carolina candidates. The largest donors are the North Carolina Farm Bureau, the North Carolina Pork Council, and Smithfield Foods, which is owned by Chinese conglomerate WH Group. Several legislators are current or former farmers and have helped to pass pro-industry legislation and defended the industry in the press.
Former poultry farmer and North Carolina state Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R), who represents a region with the most densely concentrated CAFOs in the country, championed a bill aimed at preventing citizens from suing major meat companies over pollution, has led pro-industry rallies, and has dismissed residents’ concerns about the stench and nuisance of living near a hog CAFO as “exaggerations,” accusing them of being “recruited” by greedy lawyers.
The fight for environmental justice in North Carolina hog country
North Carolina’s pro-industry, hands-off regulatory environment is inseparable from the state’s history. Legacies of slavery, genocide, land theft, and racial discrimination have made it impossible for many North Carolinians to access the kind of political and economic power necessary to stop factory farms from moving into their neighborhoods — and from finding relief from the farms’ pollution.
One historical anecdote highlights how race was a defining factor in the pork industry’s trajectory in North Carolina. Although residents — including many Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people — had been calling for stricter regulation for years, a moratorium on new hog CAFOs passed in 1997 only after a state representative heard that one was slated to be built near a golf resort and wealthy white community in his district.
Existing CAFOs were grandfathered in, and to this day, factory farms are more common near low-income communities and communities of color. In some parts of North Carolina, there are 10 times more CAFOs in poor and nonwhite neighborhoods than in wealthier, whiter areas, even controlling for population density.
Public health researchers and community groups first applied the term “environmental racism” to this situation in 1996, when they found an astounding correlation between where formerly enslaved people had settled, known as “the Black Belt,” and the modern-day distribution of hog CAFOs in North Carolina. The name stuck, and it continues to resonate with residents who have always known that the distribution of these polluting facilities was not accidental.
Elsie Herring, whose willingness to speak out against the pork industry made her the symbol for this fight after a hog farm moved onto her family’s land in the 1980s, often described her battle as one for basic human and civil rights. (She died last year from a form of cancer that may be linked to air pollution.)
“I definitely think that environmental racism is a big part of this picture of what’s going on with the pork industry,” she told me. “Otherwise, why not put them next door to where they live? Of course poverty has something to do with it also, but there’s plenty of poor white people, and these facilities are not in their neighborhood.”
“Eastern North Carolina is the dumping grounds for North Carolina,” says Muhammad. “We always say whatever white people don’t want in their backyards, come to eastern North Carolina, and we’ll show it to you, ‘cause it’s here.”
For the past three decades, residents like Herring have been engaged in a multi-front war, supported by a broad coalition of environmental and legal advocacy groups, public health researchers, and civil rights advocates. They’ve executed creative stunts like bringing gallons of hog feces to the governor’s mansion and setting up a mock hog farm — complete with functioning manure sprayers — on the state capitol grounds. They have pleaded with the industry directly, filed petitions, attended council meetings, lobbied legislators, testified before Congress, and even run for office against pro-industry politicians.
They’ve also filed federal Civil Rights Act complaints to the EPA, alleging that North Carolina’s environmental regulatory agency discriminates against communities of color by permitting CAFOs to pollute their air and drinking water (under the Civil Rights Act, no entity that receives federal funds may discriminate on the basis of race).
The most recent complaint, filed in January, argues that regulators are discriminating against communities of color by allowing some CAFOs to convert animal waste into fuel, a practice environmental justice advocates say worsens pollution by entrenching existing systems and subjecting communities to new gas pipelines and plants.
For years, North Carolina residents also hoped to find relief by suing the industry, but taking Big Meat to court is neither cheap nor easy. Financial barriers and intimidation from the industry directed at both law firms and would-be plaintiffs made this tactic inaccessible until residents finally found Mona Lisa Wallace, a gutsy lawyer from a small North Carolina town who was brave enough to take on a meat industry goliath.
In 2014, Wallace’s firm filed 26 nuisance lawsuits on behalf of a group of about 500 North Carolina residents — almost all people of color — against pork producer Murphy-Brown, which later became a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork company. The suits detailed how the odor, noise, and health problems from air and water pollution made plaintiffs’ homes and land less livable and less valuable. The farmers themselves were not named in the lawsuits, as plaintiffs and their attorneys believed that farmers, too, are often victims of corporate agriculture’s exploitation.
Five of the lawsuits went to trial, and in each one, jurors unanimously sided with the residents. In total, the juries awarded residents $549,902,400, reduced to $97,880,000 due to a state cap on punitive damages — a cap that was put in place by industry-friendly lawmakers.
Smithfield appealed, but again, the federal appeals court sided with the plaintiffs, forcing the company to settle all remaining cases. The settlement amounts and other terms of the settlement are confidential, and in its press releases regarding its changes to animal waste disposal practices over the last several years, Smithfield has not stated that those changes are related to the settlement or required by it.
After the settlement announcement, plaintiff René Miller says conditions haven’t changed for her and her family. “That makes me feel good that we won,” she said. “But because we won, that don’t stop them from spraying [hog manure] on my house. So it’s still going on. I don’t go out my front door, and I stay in the house, keep the window closed. I still smell it.” Miller says she will use what she receives from the settlement to pay her medical bills.
In a statement regarding the company’s decision to settle, Smithfield spokesperson Keira Lombardo wrote, “These civil actions brought in North Carolina are part of a coordinated effort by plaintiffs’ attorneys and their allies aimed at dismantling our safe, reliable and modern system of food production. From the outset of these cases, we committed to vigorously defend agriculture and protect North Carolina’s farm families from this assault. Our support for America’s farmers does not end with this decision.”
Despite the win in the courts, while the lawsuits were ongoing, North Carolina’s legislature passed two retaliatory bills that tamp down on advocacy against CAFO pollution moving forward by making it extremely difficult to sue a major meat company for nuisance. “I think it’s horrific. I think it’s unconstitutional,” says Wallace. “And I think it’s sad that anyone would vote for a bill that treats people differently, that makes some people’s homes more precious than others’, just to protect the industry.”
Before the North Carolina cases, every state already had a “right to farm” law which protects agribusiness, to a degree, from similar lawsuits. But Big Meat was so spooked by its losses in North Carolina that it has lobbied legislatures in several ag-heavy states to strengthen those laws.
Today, pollution continues unabated in poor communities of color in the state and elsewhere. What’s needed, advocates say, is policy reform.
The EPA could do a lot more to hold CAFOs accountable for air and water pollution, according to Tarah Heinzen, legal director for the environmental nonprofit Food and Water Watch. “Its authorities under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and transparency laws remain largely untapped when it comes to CAFOs,” Heinzen says.
An EPA spokesperson told me via email that the agency “has been working toward a comprehensive strategy to address CAFO air emissions” by developing “improved emission-estimating methodologies [and] gathering additional information about the magnitude of CAFO emissions and their control options.” It expects to release draft reports this summer.
The spokesperson also noted the EPA is evaluating various Clean Air Act regulatory tools that might be used to address air pollution and is working to correct for the injustices wrought by past policies “through active engagement with underserved communities,” with regional virtual workshops and national monthly calls, and by funding air monitoring.
The EPA is also hamstrung by Congress. For years, Congress’ annual spending bill that funds the government has included provisions that block the EPA from monitoring and regulating CAFO greenhouse gas emissions and manure management systems. This year’s spending bill, which was signed by President Joe Biden in March, included those provisions.
In February, the White House announced a new screening tool to identify communities harmed by pollution, though it’ll exclude race, a move that disappointed environmental justice advocates. The White House said that decision was made to prevent legal challenges, fearing it would be struck down by the Supreme Court.
“I won’t be happy until this industry makes some significant changes where no one has to live under these kinds of conditions, where we can’t just simply enjoy our God-given rights, our right to clean air and clean water, the right to eat safe food,” Herring told me about a year before she died. “All of these things are worth fighting for. We need young people to take up the fight to fight environmental racism and injustices because this is their future. This world will be theirs when we leave.”
Jamie Berger is a writer and the producer of the feature-length documentary, The Smell of Money. She was born and raised in North Carolina and is the chief of staff at Mercy For Animals.