North Carolina’s annual farm bill addresses fertilizer regulations, landscapers , and even the legal definition of “planting and harvesting season.” But environmental groups say one provision unfairly shields the industry from public scrutiny, while the industry argues it protects from overzealous watchdogs.
The Catawba Riverkeeper, Sam Perkins, flies over agriculture facilities in a small Cessna airplane. He circles a poultry farm, examining it for problems that could impact the river or wildlife and taking photos. Perkins says, from the air, he can pinpoint problems neighbors have reported.
“Especially when you maybe get the odor but you can’t visually see some of the waste that might be getting mismanaged, you have to go to the air,” says Perkins.
That odor could be poultry waste, left uncovered too long.
“So this is how we’ve generated a lot of our complaints. And we’ve been very successful at it,” he says.
Perkins will compile the photos and submit his own complaint to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
DENR spokeswoman Susan Massengale says the agency relies on reports from the public and environmental groups.
“We only have so many people on staff and we can’t be everywhere all the time,” says Massengale. “Those complaints are important to us, because it is the citizenry that helps us find those problems.”
The agriculture industry has its own complaint, though. The North Carolina Farm Bureau says flyovers, like those done by the Catawba Riverkeeper, are generating an “overwhelming number of unfounded complaints”—for instance, mistaking a pile of soil for a pile of uncovered poultry waste.
Those complaints are public, even if the environment agency never finds a violation. The Bureau says that means clean operations are unfairly smeared—an argument that won over North Carolina House agriculture chairman Jimmy Dixon, a livestock farmer himself.
“Sensationalism can be a problem,” Dixon told House lawmakers.” Public display of a complaint in many instances rings a bell that it ought not to ring, if it’s not true.”
Dixon included a provision in the Farm Bill that does not change the interaction between the public and the environment agency—they can still complain. But, it seals those complaints from the public until state regulators find a violation. And that gives Perkins and the state’s other Riverkeepers another complaint.
“This bill would take away any accountability for investigations that might lead to enforcements,” says Perkins. So this really flies in the face of open government.”
Perkins says it would also hurt his investigations. For instance, he would not have reports of bad odors to fly over.
State regulators have no formal position on the provision. The Division of Water Resources, which receives the bulk of complaints related to agriculture, gets about six or seven a month, according to Massengale. The agency does not track how many are bogus, so Massengale did an informal survey of regulators.
“The range of complaints that are frivolous may be as low as 25 or 30 percent or perhaps even a little lower and in some cases as high as 80 percent,” she says
But, she says the department would rather complaints be wrong than unreported.
The Senate passed the farm bill Wednesday and the House is scheduled to vote Thursday.