Publisher's Note: This article originally appeared in the Beaufort Observer.
There's a story unfolding in Hyde County with Rose Acre Farms that every North Carolinian should not only be aware of but fighting mad about. Here's the "short version:"
Rose Acre produces eggs. Well, of course their chickens produce the eggs but Rose Acre is a large egg producing farming operation. And of course chickens produce waste by products. So it is only natural that the State would require them to obtain permits to deal with any impact on the environment.
Rose Acre was required to have permits to dispose of the chicken waste. They have been monitored by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and found to be in compliance with all applicable permit requirement.
But recently bureaucrats with DENR decided that they would, in addition to the permits the law requires of Rose Acre (or other egg producers) that they would have to have an air quality permit. Now note our words carefully. Bureaucrats decided this, not the Legislature. Rose Acre has now been forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to satisfy these rogue bureaucrats who have just dreamed up regulations to impose on Rose Acre. And to top it all off, the things the bureaucrats are trying to regulate (air pollution) actually have no scientific basis, but rather are just something the bureaucrats decided they should regulate.
That's the simple layman's explanation. Of course it is more complicated and very technical. Hood Richardson has been following this story very closely and this is his report;
This all had to have started when some environmental genus who had never read the Constitution of either the State of North Carolina or the Federal Government figured a way to cripple our animal waste management laws and thus the entire industry. Animal producers in almost all states enjoy special state regulation that covers waste produced in a less regulatory way than other environmental laws. There is no lessening of the standards, just a lessening of the permitting regulations farmers have to deal with. I am not complaining about this privilege because the system works well. My only complaint may be the regulatory subsidies provided at the taxpayers expense.
This genius, and he had to have co-conspirators to make it work, developed the concept that volatiles in the air are eventually scrubbed out by rain and end up in the surface water. The genius left out a lot of science when he decided all of these volatiles wound up in surface water streams.
The argument used by the genius and his NCDENR helpers is that the ammonia produced from poultry and other animal waste evaporates into the air and is returned to earth in rainwater. Ammonia is a source of available nitrogen. Poultry waste produces more ammonia than any other animal waste. Available nitrogen is one of the primary elements in producing excessive algae growth in nutrient sensitive streams. The genius enhanced his argument by pointing out the unusual size of the Rose Acre chicken flock and the fact that all surface waters in eastern North Carolina have been classified as nutrient sensitive. Some of these streams may in fact not be nutrient sensitive.
This all sounds good but the science is flawed. Nitrogen up take in soils and the high carbon to nitrogen ratio of eastern North Carolinas swampy soils were not considered. Also not considered were air dilution, diffusion and transport out of the area. Rose Acre spent hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to address these issues for their lawsuit. They proved NCDENR's reasoning is bogus.
Air quality permits are required for manufacturing operations that use air, say for burning coal or natural gas. Water quality permits are required for those manufacturers who discharge water from their property. Looks like the whole situation is covered, right. A water quality permit is required when domestic animals congregate. A permit for discharging the waste products generated by living things either into the air or the water is not required other than domestic animals when congregated in high-density areas. Would a beaver, a deer, a cow, a chicken or a fish be required to obtain a permit? Silly. However, some environmental groups are trying to make a big deal about gas passed by herds of pastured cattle.
Along comes Rose Acre farms with an egg producing operation consisting of about 3.5 million hens in Hyde County. They have about 150 employees. They wanted to expand about the same time their permits came up for a 5-year renewal. Normally changes made to renewed permits reflect changes in the law made during the past 5 years. Rather than renewing these permits essentially as originally issued the State of North Carolina decided Rose Acre would have to set up surface water test sites at several locations not on their property, and produce water quality reports. This would be a considerable expense. The lunacy in this is that Rose Acre was not required to even have a water quality permit. At least two Federal District Courts had ruled such a permit is not required unless there is a discharge into surface waters from the hen house operation. This is a dry litter operation. There is no process water and no impounded water. All wastewater is from bathrooms and is treated in septic tanks.
Rose Acre argued for a while and then, based on the Federal Courts rulings decided to bring suit in order to get the matter cleared up so they could expand their egg operation. The case went from Administrative Procedures Court in Raleigh to Superior Court in Hyde County. Judge Wayland Sermons avoided making a decision and remanded the case back to Administrative Procedures Court in Raleigh.
The Republicans took charge in Raleigh in 2013. There was no law to back up what the geniuses at NCDENR were trying to do and the new administration is willing to issue the permits as specified by the law. They discovered things were very complicated. Several local and national environmental groups had managed to attach themselves as parties to the suit. They refused to walk away from this lawsuit. NCDENR could not issue the permits.
Rose Acre is important to the economy of Hyde County. Hyde County has less than 6,000 residents. Another 25 jobs are important to the local economy.
At this writing Rose acre has two options. Fight it out in the state courts or go into Federal Court with the same case other companies did in at least two other Federal District Courts and ask for the same judgement based on the same law used in those courts.
There are far ranging implications to this issue. Environmental law firms from as far away as California have come to North Carolina to argue this case. If the environmental lobby prevails in court, every meat processor in North Carolina is at the risk of having to comply with the requirements for a specific permit. That is every pork, poultry or other animal producer will be required to do what NCDENR started out trying force on Rose Acre. They will have to provide site specific environmental water, land and air studies to prove they either meet or can meet the standards. The public will be able to comment on all permit applications. Who do you think will be first in line to comment and complain? Once North Carolina has been beaten into submission every other state will be required to comply. This is an excellent example of activists trying to use the court system to obtain what they cannot obtain from the legislative process. The cost of meat will sky rocket.
The public should be concerned about three things: (1) The inability of the court system to see the issue as legislative and not judicial, (2) The unethical and illegal activities of NCDENR employees in holding hands with environmental activists, and (3) The inability of the management system in Raleigh to protect the public from these kinds of games played by state employees and the environmental lobby. None of this is to say we do not need some regulations. We do need government processes to work with out subversion.
The single thing our state government should do is institute and enforce a set of ethical standards for every state employee that requires a separation between activism, lobby groups, and professional groups and their job. I believe we would discover that we need fewer employees and those who hold licenses from state agencies, boards and commissions would be better able to do their jobs.