Robeson County environmental advocates call for more regulations on poultry farms

By Kerria Weaver

Two environmental activists in Robeson County have filed a federal complaint alleging that North Carolina fails to adequately regulate poultry plants that disproportionately affect American Indian, Black and Latinx residents.

The complaint, filed April 26 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s lack of regulation “illegally discriminates” against BIPOC communities in Robeson, Duplin and Sampson counties. 

“I hate it when it comes to this, but you have to fight hard to make an issue right,” Jefferson Currie, the Lumber Riverkeeper, told the Border Belt Independent. 

Currie and Donna Chavis, both members of the Lumbee tribe, filed the complaint, along with Friends of the Earth, an environmental justice organization with offices in Washington, D.C., and California. 

The complaint asks the EPA to “compel” North Carolina to require poultry farms to get permits to operate, according to the Environmental Justice Clinic at Vermont Law and Graduate School, which filed the document on behalf of the activists. 

Few regulations are currently in place for poultry farms in North Carolina. They must meet local zoning standards, but the DEQ does not make public information about them, including their locations. 

Currie, who has served as riverkeeper since 2018, said he has seen the number of poultry plants increase drastically near the Lumbee River and elsewhere across the state. An investigation last year by The News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer found that roughly 230,000 people in North Carolina live within half a mile of a poultry farm. 

More than 100 poultry plants are in Robeson County, according to a map by Waterkeeper Alliance, a global initiative that advocates for clean water. 

One of the most diverse counties in North Carolina, Robeson is home to the Lumbee tribe.  American Indians make up about 44% of the population, while Black residents account for about 23% and Hispanic residents make up about 9%. 

It is one of the poorest counties in the state, with 28% of residents living in poverty. 

Poultry farms that use dry litter – a combination of feces, urine, feathers and bedding materials – emit foul odors and attract flies. Dust from poultry plants has been associated with respiratory problems, including chronic bronchitis and asthma. 

In a news release from the Environmental Justice Clinic at Vermont Law and Graduate School, Robeson County resident Henry Brewer said litter from poultry farms is dumped across the street from his home every 100 days. 

“Each of the five piles is over 8 feet tall,” he said in the release. “They stand there and start fuming off. The odor is terrible. Sometimes it feels like the flies are about to eat us alive – the dogs can’t even live in the yard.”

Currie said there are also concerns about water contamination. Ammonia, nitrogen, phosphorous and E. coli from poultry farms end up in local rivers, streams and swamps, he said. 

“This impacts drinking water for Lumberton, but it also starts to impact groundwater and other surface water locations,” he said. 

Many residents whose homes are not connected to public water lines use shallow wells that are about 9 feet deep, Currie said. He said those people are at a higher risk of consuming water that was polluted by poultry farms. 

Robeson, Duplin and Sampson counties have also been impacted by the hog industry, Fredrick Ole Ikayo, a fellow at the Environmental Justice Clinic in Vermont, noted in the news release. 

“Now, dry litter poultry facilities are concentrating in the same areas already overburdened by the hog industry, creating a panoply of cumulative harms not being accounted for by NCDEQ,” he said.