When a hog waste lagoon sprang an underground leak in Northampton County two years ago, local health officials turned to the only state agency with the legal muscle to protect groundwater supplies.
They were shocked to learn that the Division of Environmental Management could do nothing to help them.
The DEM couldn't fine the hog company, Carroll's Foods of Virginia, Inc. It couldn't even ask Carroll's to stop the leak. "Because this is an agricultural activity," the agency's regional supervisor wrote in a letter, "it is my interpretation that this office may not have regulatory authority."
Incredulous, county Health Director Dr. W. Boone Mora fired back with a question: "If not your office, then who?"
Mora's frustrations echo those of hundreds of others who have turned to the state when they see evidence of possible water pollution. When it comes to policing agriculture, they say, the state's anti-pollution cop has neither the staff nor the will to get the job done.
The DEM partially agrees. With the hog industry growing faster in North Carolina than in any other state, and with mounting questions about the effect of that growth on groundwater, top DEM officials acknowledge that they don't know how many hog farmers might be violating water quality rules-even unintentionally.
"This is an industry that simply hasn't been looked at that closely," says Steve Tedder, chief of the DEM's water quality section. "I think the majority of them try to do it right, but we don't really have the system to know if they're doing it right."
In the case of underground leaks from lagoons, such as the one in Northampton County, the DEM is powerless to intervene unless there's evidence that the contamination has spread to a neighboring property. Until that happens, the agency can't even order monitoring tests.
The DEM has greater authority to enforce regulations protecting streams from pollution. But in reality its effectiveness is hobbled by the lack of staff to enforce the rules.
At DEM field offices, workers describe a steady flow of complaints about spills, overflowing lagoons and overirrigated fields. Investigators say they try to respond to all the complaints as quickly as they can.
Yet, since 1989, the agency has filed charges against 48 hog farms-fewer than 10 a year. The average fine assessed was $2,000, and the average amount collected was $1,550.
To swine industry officials, 48 punishable offenses out of more than 8,000 farms is proof that the industry is performing well environmentally. But top DEM managers say the numbers show less about hog farmers than about the agency's ability to check up on them.
"It's certainly not a reflection of who's in compliance and who isn't," said Tedder.
The DEM recently was granted legal authority to slap polluters with fines of up to $5,000 a day. Two years ago, it adopted new water-quality rules that require large hog operations to register with the agency and draw up detailed waste-management plans.
Yet, until now, the DEM has no inspectors assigned to see if the plans are being carried out. It does not send workers to make routine inspections of hog farms, or even random checks.
In fact, the only time farms are inspected is when someone complains. And even then, the caller may be in for a wait: Some of the DEM's field offices cover territories encompassing a dozen counties or more.
"There's been criticism of this, even by the farmers: We've got the rules, so why don't we enforce them?" said David Harding, an environmental engineer for the DEM's Water Quality Planning section. "But our staff is stretched to the limit. Our regional offices are doing everything. Just to take on agricultural waste would be a major undertaking, and we don't have full-time people working on it."
The DEM is pressing for relief. A proposed $2 million allocation in Gov. Jim Hunt's budget proposal would allow the agency to hire 13 new staff members for work on issues related to agricultural pollution.
Among them would be four new inspectors dedicated to overseeing farms and animal operations, said Steve Levitas, deputy secretary of the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources. The spending plan must be approved by the General Assembly.
"We want to be out there doing a more aggressive job with enforcement where there are clear violations," Levitas said in an interview. "This will not be complaint-driven any more. We will be moving toward being more pro-active and going out there and getting problems solved."
But tougher enforcement could spark a fight with the state's traditional agribusiness interests, a force that has affected DEM's aggressiveness in the past.
Former DEM workers such as Jim Kennedy, an environmental scientist for the DEM under the Hunt and Martin administrations, say agriculture was long regarded as a sacred cow which past administrations were reluctant to challenge. Such attitudes, officials say, are a part of an institutional culture that has been very slow to change.
"Yes it did exist. Yes, it still exists to some extent. And yes, it's changing," Tedder said.
Levitas said the key question now is whether hog companies can be persuaded to become better managers of their industry's waste under existing laws, or whether more severe measures will be necessary. Such measures might include mandatory permits or limits on animal density in some areas.
Unless changes occur, he said, pollution from farms may start to limit development by other kinds of industry.
"Our starting point is to work in a partnership with local governments and people whose lives and activities are caught up in this," Levitas said. "But if it's clear we're not getting the job done, we'll have to go back and take another look at the rules."
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