Neighbors Lobby For More Regulation On Chicken Farms
A group of North Carolina residents will rally in Raleigh Wednesday, urging lawmakers for stronger regulations on large-scale chicken farms. They’ve been multiplying rapidly in the western part of the state. Some residents near Pilot Mountain say the smell is so bad that it’s ruining their neighborhoods. And they say it’s not just a nuisance–it’s a potential health hazard.
Quaint brick homes line this lush countryside neighborhood in Surry County where Terry Marshall and his wife, Mary, have lived for decades. Agriculture is a way of life here. But it wasn’t until the last year and a half when the chicken houses started popping up around them–and with it the smell.
“It’s hard to describe. When you walk outside and your nose starts to burn and your throat starts to hurt– you know you are in it. It smells like a lot of ammonia and sometimes just dead rotting meat,” says Marshall.
The Marshalls say they also worry that the air is unhealthy. The waste is a combination of manure, feed and carcasses, which can cause harmful gas emissions, like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. Mary says there are dust particles in the air and it’s affecting her breathing.
“We had some friends over to the house, several people one night, and it was so bad they had flashlights in the backyard and you could see it,” says Mary Marshall. “Terry said he saw somebody put their hands on someone else’s shoulder just to comfort them and it came up from their shoulder, the particles.”
Environmental groups are concerned, too. Will Scott with the Yadkin Riverkeeper says chicken farms aren’t under the same scrutiny as other industries. For example, they’re exempt from state odor ordinances and the EPA doesn't monitor their air emissions. And, Scott says, the waste may be entering the waterways, which can alter the entire ecosystem.
“You get these algae blooms and when that algae dies it gets consumed by bacteria and that can lead to by-products, which are toxic to human health,” says Scott. “That’s something we’ve seen happen in places like the Neuse Estuary down east, so these are things that our water treatment plants have to filter out.”
Scott says they don’t even know how much waste is out there because there’s little public data available. His group has done their own surveys and he estimates that there are about 22,000 large-scale dry-litter poultry operations in the region.
Susan Massengale with the NC Department of Environmental Resources says even the state doesn’t have a way to track them.
“We don’t know where all of them are, and there is no inspection requirement from us, so the way that we find out information is if there is a problem in many cases,” says Massengale.
Many of the barns are the size of football fields and they can pack in around 25,000 chickens. Some of them have even become part of the landscape of Pilot Mountain State Park.
“Surry County has so much potential as a tourist destination with wineries and breweries and beautiful landscape and this park is one of the jewels in the state,” says Kathy Kellam, a resident who lives near the park. “If you look around, I’m guessing there are 30 to 40 chicken operations within a 5 mile radius of Pilot Mountain State Park and they are creeping closer.”
“You can smell the stench when you ride horses or hike on the park trail near our home,” says Helen Beets.
"Our dream home has become a nightmare,” adds her husband, Doug.
Poultry is big business in North Carolina with a $17 billion dollar economic impact.
Bob Ford with the NC Poultry Federation says more regulation will hurt that growing industry. He adds odor and other issues are the farmer’s responsibility, but he acknowledges that companies could be more involved.
“There’s always room for improvement on anything we do out here. Maybe we can try to use more buffer zones or tree planting to reduce the impact,” says Ford.
Tyson and Perdue are two of the major the companies in Western North Carolina that contract with independent farmers.
Perdue wouldn’t comment for this story. In a statement, Tyson says their farmers are required to follow state and federal laws, which don’t offer any protections for residents like Terry and Mary Marshall.
But Mary says it’s already too late for her neighborhood.
“I have to hold myself together all of the time. I knew it was going to be bad, but I had no idea it was going to be this bad,” she says through tears.
Marshall says she’ll lobby lawmakers to prevent this from happening to others.
She wants new rules that keep chicken farms away from residential areas, and something to control the odor and pollution, which she says is about to get a whole lot worse in the hot, North Carolina summer.