Editor’s Desk – Why did livestock complaints vanish in North Carolina?

The Bob Ivey Facility, located along the Neuse river in North Carolina. Its waste lagoon was under water in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Photo by Rick Dove, image courtesy of Cape Fear River Watch and Waterkeeper Alliance.

Last week, we published an investigation about the livestock industry in North Carolina, the No. 2 ranked state for hog production, where companies have been sued by neighbors for noxious manure waste. The story, by Barry Yeoman in collaboration with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and The Guardian, reported that North Carolina released only 33 public complaints about these operations from 2008 to 2018. Over that same time period, other major livestock states like Iowa, Nebraska and Texas have literally logged thousands.

Why, we wondered, did North Carolina have so few complaints when others had so many more? The answer, it turns out, stems from the way the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality dealt with complaints and the actions the state legislature took to make many complaints invisible in the public record. The result was that neighbors of polluting farms had little redress. They have found another avenue, however, suing hog industry giant Smithfield Foods, and winning jury verdicts. Advocates also pushed for DEQ to revise its approach, which it did, resulting in the release of many more recent complaints.

This story was also republished by several regional papers, including The Charlotte Observer and The Raleigh News and Observer.

This is the second story in our industrial livestock series, which explores these vast operations in the context of rural communities. Our first story in the series, “Is the Poultry Industry Cheating its Farmers?,” by Leah Douglas and Chris Leonard, also in collaboration with The Guardian, showed how poultry companies had a system in place that could allow it to fix prices paid to chicken farmers. Leah also broke a major story about how the Justice Department was investigating chicken companies for price fixing — keeping the prices paid for chicken artificially high for consumers.

We couldn’t have produced this work without the data and public records expertise of Chris Walljasper at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, or the editorial partnership with The Guardian. We have “Network” in FERN’s name for a reason — because working in collaboration with partners can pay off big time, especially for investigations.

We hope you read these stories, which required months of digging, repeated public records requests, gumshoe reporting and many drafts. We can’t do this work without help from you, our readers. So please consider a donation to support FERN’s ongoing investigation of the livestock business. Because we’re not done yet.