Environmental groups, scientists say DEQ’s air monitoring program fails the sniff test

By: - January 24, 2020 6:00 am
The Division of Air Quality installed three air monitors, shown here in green, to measure ambient air quality in Duplin County. The red dots represent industrialized hog farms, of which there are more than 500 in the county, housing 2.2 million hogs. (Map by Lisa Sorg; data source NC DEQ animal feeding operation database, air monitoring sites latitude and longitude)

Because DEQ limited air monitor sites to meet EPA criteria, they were too far from hog farms to accurately measure their emissions.

When state environmental officials agreed to a historic civil rights settlement two years ago, neighbors of industrial hog operations hoped that their misery — detailed in court under oath but discounted by the pork industry, their lawyers and several legislators — would be further confirmed by data. 

The settlement required the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to conduct a temporary air monitoring study to measure three pollutants — ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5 — in and around Duplin County. These are among the contaminants surfing on the wafts of stench emanating from open-pit lagoons and spray fields teeming with feces and urine.

Depending on the study results, the Division of Air Quality (DAQ) could continue to monitor the air and potentially enforce regulations on offending farms or other violators.

But now the agency says it intends to stop the year-long monitoring program. DAQ last month released the study findings, concluding there are no “significant” air quality issues in the monitored area for these pollutants. “While there were sporadic events,” the report reads, the data showed only two exceedances of ambient air quality standards.

[box title=”Comment on the Duplin County air monitoring study” border_width=”2″ border_color=”#141414″ border_style=”solid” align=”center”]By email: [email protected] By postal mail: N.C. Department of Environmental Quality attn: Jim Bowyer 217 W. Jones St. 1641 Mail Service Center Raleigh, NC 27699-1641 Deadline is Jan. 30. [/box]

The results aren’t surprising. DAQ placed the air monitors in the wrong places — at least for the purposes of measuring what neighbors of industrialized hog operations are breathing.

“By intentionally siting monitors away from CAFOs” — concentrated animal feeding operations — “the data collection study design is almost guaranteed not to show elevated exposures,” said Chris Frey, who served as the chairman of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee from 2012 to 2015. He is also a distinguished professor of environmental engineering at NC State University.

DAQ officials says they sited the monitors based strictly on EPA criteria to measure pollutants in ambient air. Ambient air monitoring measures pollutants in a certain area, not from a specific emitter. According to the criteria, monitors should not be located near large emissions sources, such as CAFOs.

Two air monitors were placed at NC State’s Williamsdale Farm, which researches biofuels, in Wallace, and on Beaulaville town property on Sarecta Road. A “continuity monitor,” used to compare historical and current data, was placed in Kenansville at the Cowan Museum, which features a large botanical garden. A fourth “control” monitor was sited in Candor 100 miles away, in a field surrounded by Uwharrie State Forest.

But since complaints about odor from hog farms drove the civil rights complaint, it would follow that the air study should be designed to better understand pollutants that were harming neighbors of CAFOs. 

“If the concern is about exposure to emissions from CAFOs,” Frey said, “then it would be more reasonable to ascertain the human population downwind of such facilities and to site monitors that represent exposures to such communities.”

The EPA’s criteria for “community-oriented” air monitoring specifically excludes areas near the emissions sources. DAQ spokeswoman Zaynab Nasif said the agency used another EPA criteria,“neighborhood-scale” monitoring, which requires a distance of at least a half-mile from these sources.

The Williamsdale Research Farm, where NC State researchers experiment with biofuels, is about a mile from the closest CAFO.

Duplin County has more than 500 swine CAFOs, 2.2 million hogs, and an unknown number of poultry operations within 816 square miles, so it was difficult for DEQ to even find places to put the monitors that met EPA criteria. “It proved to be a challenge, but it was accomplished,” James Bowyer, laboratory analysis branch supervisor for the Division of Air Quality, wrote in the report.

Yet DAQ could have followed the EPA criteria and still measured chronic and extreme pollutant levels near homes close to the CAFOs. The EPA allows state agencies to supplement their monitoring stations with “fence line” locations to measure precisely that type of air pollution. DAQ chose not to conduct fence line monitoring. Even though fence line data can’t be used to enforce air regulations, it would still yield valuable information for farmers and neighbors.


The Cowan Museum in Kenansville is the site of the second air monitor.

Under the terms of the settlement, DAQ agreed to provide only two active monitoring sites during the study “given the availability of equipment.” 

Nasif said the division used funding “from various sources, and invested in equipment to best assess air quality,” to conduct the monitoring.  However, the division has not yet calculated a total cost estimate, she said.

DEQ negotiated the original settlement agreement with REACH — Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help — a small nonprofit organization in Duplin County, as well as Waterkeeper Alliance and the NC Environmental Justice Network. The agency consulted with REACH about the study design, including the monitor siting. Devon Hall, co-founder and program manager of REACH, confirmed that the group had input into the monitor siting, but that air quality officials denied their requests for additional locations.

A third monitor was placed near the water tower north of Beaulaville

“We were hoping they would have involved us more in selecting other sites,” Hall said.  “We offered them our office,” a small modular home within a one-mile radius of 10 CAFOs. “I asked if we could look at other sites. They always had excuses.”

The settlement terms allowed REACH to conduct independent air monitoring using its own equipment and only at DEQ’s designated sites. “We’re a small nonprofit organization,” Hall said. “We don’t have that kind of money.”

REACH had conducted one previous study with another group, using loaned equipment. It cost $46,000, Hall said, “and that’s just our part,” not including the lab fees.

Elizabeth Haddix, managing attorney for the regional office of Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, acknowledged that DAQ worked hard to find places to install the monitors. “We appreciate that,” she said.

But, she added, “We think that DAQ’s refusal to do fence line monitoring was a real error.” DAQ had conducted monitoring previously at Kenansville Elementary School, which is three-quarters of a mile from at least one hog CAFO. “We are not at all clear as to why that was not a selected site, given the research on impacts from malodors and particulate matter on Duplin County students and asthma rates,” Haddix went on. “We are disappointed that DEQ did not try harder to monitor at school sites and other sensitive areas.”

According to 2010 census data, 36,000 people in Duplin and adjacent Sampson counties live within a half-mile of permitted CAFOs; some residents live within three miles of 30 such operations. “DEQ’s study doesn’t tell us what kinds of odors these people are experiencing, or what kind of pollution they’re breathing,” said Alexis Andiman, senior associate attorney with Earthjustice, one of the firms that represented the complainants in the civil rights settlement. “Odor is not just odor. It’s the smell of air pollutants.”

Among these pollutants is PM 2.5. It is particularly harmful because of its size — 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair — which allows the particulate matter to burrow deep into the lungs. Exposure to PM 2.5 can cause respiratory illnesses and worsen asthma and heart disease.

DEQ notes in the report that there were two days when levels of PM 2.5 exceeded federal 24-hour air quality standards: On Aug. 2 and 4, 2019, at NC State’s Williamsdale Farm, which researches biofuels. The agency attributed the spikes to open burning nearby.

Levels of hydrogen sulfide, noticeable for its odor of rotten eggs, were higher than the average odor threshold for several 15-minute increments at the Sarecta Road site. But, the agency noted, “this does not constitute a level at which the Division of Air Quality can take any regulatory action.”

There were five instances in which levels of ammonia were measurable, according to DEQ, but none of them exceeded federal standards.

Nor is there documentation of farms’ spray field operations, which could influence the monitoring results. The spraying could have been moved to a different part of a farm, or temporarily stopped — key information to understanding the emissions sources, said Mike Dolan Fliss, an epidemiologist with the UNC Chapel Hill Injury Prevention Research Center and a volunteer with the NC Environmental Justice Network.

By discontinuing the monitoring program — or failing to improve it — Fliss said, DEQ is ignoring the possibility that pollutant levels could rise. Although the number of hog farms remains steady because of a moratorium on expanded or new facilities, the poultry industry is expanding throughout eastern North Carolina. Since the state doesn’t require most poultry farms to obtain a permit, these operations are largely unregulated and can be built nearly anywhere in rural North Carolina.

“There needs to be more independent oversight as it pertains to DEQ on behalf of the community,” said Calvin Cupini, AirKeepers program manager for Clean Air Carolina, based in Charlotte.

There is arguably a data shortage, even for ambient air data. North Carolina used to have a robust ambient air monitoring program, with 132 stations statewide. But in 2015, the legislature, under the leadership of Republicans committed to a deregulation agenda, passed a law requiring DEQ to remove any ambient air monitors not required by federal law. As a result, the number plummeted, from 132 to 62.

Nonetheless, Hall said, state officials “could have gone a step further if they wanted to. In our initial discussions we wanted the monitoring to be 24 months, or even permanent.”

The results of the settlement agreement have been mixed. The Farm Bureau and the NC Department of Agriculture are contesting DEQ’s new permitting rules for swine, cattle, horses and a few poultry operations. Some of the new rules, such as reporting requirements, were born from the settlement agreement.

And while DEQ is asking to halt the air monitoring portion of the settlement, the agency continues to monitor streams and rivers in the Stocking Head Creek watershed in Duplin County under the terms of the agreement.  The first round of sampling from April to December of 2018 showed high levels of fecal coliform — formed in the intestinal tract of humans and animals — in the waterways. Of 99 samples, only 16 reported levels lower than 200 Coliform Forming Units, the state maximum.

DEQ followed up in 2019 with additional testing. From January to August, the latest figures available, 25 of 88 samples were lower than 200 CFU.

However, DEQ has not definitively linked the fecal coliform levels to the hundreds of livestock operations in the watershed. But since there are no wastewater treatment plants upstream of the sampling areas, farms are likely the source.

The draft air study is open to public comment through Jan. 30, so DAQ could improve a final version. “We hope that DAQ will agree to do more monitoring,” Haddix said. “The study may have accurately measured what it measured, but unfortunately it did not measure what neighbors are burdened with.”

Decades of peer-reviewed scientific studies show that people living near CAFOs experience health problems and quality-of-life harms associated with the bad odors, even if pollutants are detected at relatively low levels, like those detected in the few instances of ambient air. “So for DAQ to conclude that air quality is safe based on the absence of regulatory violations is disappointing,” Haddix said, “and fails to achieve the intent of the settlement.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.