Voces in Action
EPA to investigate North Carolina for civil rights violations
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EPA to investigate North Carolina for civil rights violations
February 26, 2015

BY BRIAN BIENKOWSKI

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has accepted a civil rights complaint filed against the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and will investigate whether lax regulation of industrial pig farms disproportionately impacts communities of color.

Last week the EPA announced it would proceed two days after Environmental Health News reported about the complaint and new research that found high levels of fecal bacteria in water near industrial pig farms in eastern North Carolina. The Charlotte Observer also wrote an editorial about the research and said the state needs to be "more vigilant" about pig waste. 

The complaint was filed last September by the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, the Waterkeeper Alliance, and is being led by Earthjustice.

In a letter to Earthjustice attorneys, Velveta Golightly-Howell, director of the EPA’s External Civil Rights Program, wrote that the agency will investigate the allegation that the state agency’s regulation of “swine feeding operations discriminates against African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans on the basis of race and national origin.”

The EPA’s acceptance is the latest in a decades-long battle in North Carolina over the industrial pig farms. For years residents have complained about the smells and pollution the farms generate. Many of the farms are located in poor communities of color. The farms' impacts have spurred a lot of media coverage.

The civil rights complaint was in part a response to the state’s renewal of a general permit for the industrial pig farms to continue operating and storing waste as they have been for years.

In an interview about the complaint and state permitting Naeema Muhammad, a co-director and community organizer at the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, said residents and organizations “have been asking the state and our representatives for years to do something different about how this industry operates in the state of North Carolina.

“It was an insult to the community and to the people of the state of North Carolina to renew those permits,” she said.

Earthjustice senior associate attorney Jocelyn D’Ambrosio last week said the EPA was “dragging their feet” on the complaint. The news that the agency would proceed was welcomed by her colleague, Marianne Engelman Lado, Earthjustice attorney and lead counsel on the case.

“Change is long overdue. We’re hopeful that EPA’s investigation will lead to the actions needed to protect the health of local communities,” Engelman Lado said in a prepared statement.

The complaint also asked the EPA to investigate whether the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources is failing to enforce its regulatory requirements for pig farms, but Golightly-Howell wrote the EPA needs more information to determine whether or not they will investigate that claim.

Golightly-Howell did not give a timeframe for the investigation.

This article originally appeared in Environmental Health News

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