At the August 26th Board of Natural Resources (DNR Board) meeting, the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) proposed changes to Georgia’s Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) rules. The proposed changes included an alarming roll-back of Georgia’s hog-waste rule that endangered water quality and public health. EPD coordinated a public comment process and reported receiving 900 comments and most were opposed to the change. The DNR Board was to consider adoption of the rule change at their December 3 board meeting, but the issue was not put on the agenda and is reportedly under further review.
“The changes EPD proposed would significantly weaken requirements for large hog operations and allow significantly larger hog CAFOs in Georgia without necessary protections for our communities, property and rivers,” said Chris Manganiello, Policy Director for Georgia River Network. “We applaud the DNR Board for helping to put a stop to the shortsighted rollback.”
The current hog-waste rule requires that CAFO’s in Georgia with 7,500 or more hogs provide notice to neighboring landowners before operations begin; puts limits on open waste lagoons and spraying; ensures that facilities have the financial means to properly close old waste lagoons; sets wider buffers between facilities and state waters, public water supplies, schools, and occupied residences; and restricts permitting of operators that have multiple past environmental law violations, among other things. EPD’s rollback proposed raising the threshold of Georgia’s hog-waste rule from 7,500 hogs to 12,500 hogs, which would allow substantially more hog waste in concentrated areas to exist without these critical protections for our families, property and rivers.
In 1998–1999, with input from the public and interested stakeholders, the DNR Board adopted the protections in the hog-waste rule because they agreed that property owners who lived adjacent to, and downstream of, proposed hog facilities faced significant threats to their health and property and acted to protect them. At the time, large hog CAFOs proposed for the state included a 10,000-hog facility in Tattnall County and a 20,000-hog facility in Taylor County. Faced with reports of hog-waste disasters from mega-hog facilities in other states and with input from the public and interested stakeholders, the DNR Board and EPD adopted the common sense requirements for hog CAFOs.
“At that time, the DNR Board members did their due diligence and then acted to protect the health and private property rights of the people of Georgia,” said Mark Woodall, Chair for the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We cannot understand why the Georgia protections should be made weaker than the current North Carolina and South Carolina requirements so delaying action was certainly the right thing to do.”
Estimates vary, but the amount of manure and waste produced by one hog can equal four to ten times the amount produced by a human. Thus, a CAFO with 12,500 hogs at a minimum could produce the same amount of waste as a population of 50,000 people (roughly the size of Valdosta), and produce much more with larger hogs. If the rule change went forward, operations of that size would have been allowed to collect liquid hog waste in a lagoon and dispose of it by spraying it onto surrounding fields, no longer falling under the strong, common sense requirements of Georgia’s hog-waste rule.
North Carolina provides striking examples of the risks posed by the proposed rollback. In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd caused the flooding of nearly 50 liquid manure lagoons and caused five more to fail completely; pouring millions of gallons of hog waste into six coastal rivers and into private drinking water wells.
“The damage from the hog CAFOs and waste lagoons may have been mitigated if North Carolina had the common sense rules that Georgia currently has in place for the largest hog operations,” said Lauren Joy, Associate Attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
However, problems do not just occur during hurricanes, they can occur any time there is a rain of a few inches. “When hog waste lagoons are full of hog manure and rain, operators of these facilities have no choice but to pump that sludge onto fields that are already soaking wet and puddled up,” said Gordon Rogers, the Flint Riverkeeper. “When that happens, the hog manure flows into the branches, creeks and rivers, landowners and communities downstream are polluted, and their health and property values are diminished.”
In November 2013, a White County landowner intentionally breached a hog lagoon that had not been properly closed, spilling 6 million gallons of hog waste into Mossy Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River above Lake Lanier. The untreated hog waste flowed across property in the State Park system and a newly opened canoe launch operated by DNR. In 2011, an EPA Office of Inspector General report on Georgia EPD’s regulatory oversight of CAFOs concluded that “as a result of inadequate oversight and reporting, Georgia’s waters are vulnerable to discharges of animal waste from CAFOs, which are associated with a range of human health and ecological impacts, and contribute to degradation of the nation’s surface waters.”
“The DNR Board did the right thing by halting this rollback,” said April Ingle, Executive Director of Georgia River Network. “The Mossy Creek spill is an unfortunate reminder that our state should remain focused on protecting our communities, property, and waterways from pollution.”