Environmentalists rely on volunteer pilot program to monitor CAFOs

Environmentalists rely on volunteer pilot program to monitor CAFOs

By Will Atwater

If the weather conditions are right, you can smell the stench of an industrial hog facility from an airplane flying at 1,500 feet. 

That’s Rick Dove’s experience, drawn from decades of flying over eastern North Carolina. During a recent flight, Dove pointed out the confined animal feeding operations — hog and poultry — dotting the Duplin County landscape.  

Visible from the four-seater Cessna 182-P, piloted by volunteer pilot Rolf Wallin, were hog and poultry operations spread across the horizon — and two poultry facilities were near a public school.

In 1993, Dove started the “Neuse River Airforce,” a group of volunteer pilots whose mission was to identify where industrial hog farms were in North Carolina.

“At that time, nobody knew where the hog farms were — not even the state,” Dove said.

However, after years spent monitoring the giant hog facilities with their pungent open-air lagoons filled with urine and feces, and reporting violations to state officials, Dove said things have changed.

“We now know how many [hogs] there are, where they are, who raised them, who owns them,” he said. “We have all that information, including their violations.”

Liquid hog waste flows from a PVC pipe into a lagoon in Eastern, NC. Credit: Rick Dove

Dove continues to monitor hog and poultry facilities as the senior adviser for the North Carolina chapter of Waterkeeper Alliance. Dove works with longtime colleague Larry Baldwin, who monitors the facilities for Waterkeeper Alliance, an organization of more than 300 groups worldwide that advocates for healthy waterways.

Dove said that when he first saw the open air lagoons from above years ago, he didn’t know what they were. And once a friend told him, he was shocked.

“I about fell over,” he said. “I just could not imagine all those cesspools out there full of feces and urine.”

A study released in March 2022 found that people who live in communities near industrial hog operations tend to experience higher rates of acute gastrointestinal illness than those who do not. Another study, released on Dec. 1, 2022, found that 2 percent of North Carolina’s swine and poultry facilities are in or near floodplains, putting some drinking water sources at risk.

Eye in the sky

Dove estimates that, collectively, over the years, he, Baldwin, and the state’s 15 waterkeepers have logged 4,000 to 5,000 hours in the air, he said.

Many aerial surveillance flights taken by riverkeepers, environmentalists, media members and government officials, among others, are made possible by SouthWings, an Asheville-based organization that “advocate[s] for the restoration and protection of ecosystems across the Southeast through flight.”

A man dresses in jeans, blues short-sleeved shirt and red baseball cap, poses in front of a small, single-engine plane.
Rolf Wallin poses in front of his airplane at Henderson Field Airport in Wallace, NC. Credit: Will Atwater

Through its volunteer pilot program, SouthWings provides flights in 15 states, as far west as Texas and as far north as Pennsylvania. In 2022, SouthWings sponsored 39 flights across North Carolina, according to Laura Early, the organization’s program manager.

“There is this tool available to environmental justice organizations and conservation organizations to help them get a view of things that you can’t see from the ground,” Early said. “With a lack of transparency around a lot of industries in North Carolina and the Southeast, SouthWings is available to help folks see what’s truly going on.”

Dove’s flight over Duplin and Sampson counties was piloted by Wallin, a retired anesthesiologist who flies out of Fayetteville. This was Wallin’s fourth or fifth flight for SouthWings. He’s flown volunteer missions for the past four years, including working with Pilots N Paws, a nonprofit organization that works with volunteer pilots to rescue animals, he said.

“You won’t find a pilot who doesn’t want to fly, but you’ve got to have a mission,” Wallin said. “[Volunteering] gives you a way to feel good about what you’re doing — rescuing animals, helping out with environmental things.”

‘No transparency’

Routine flyovers have revealed evidence of contamination from hog and poultry facilities that has flowed into waterways and threatened the environment and human health by elevating levels of pollutants such as e. coli, nitrates and ammonia, which can occur if large quantities of animal feces leach into a water body. Residents and communities downstream are at risk once contaminants flow into a waterway.

Riverkeepers and environmentalists credit the volunteer flyover service for providing information about the roughly 4,700 confined animal feeding operations (also known as CAFOs) housing poultry, which are out of public view and are largely unregulated by the state.

“There are thousands of poultry CAFOs all over the state of North Carolina — from the mountains to the coast,” said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear riverkeeper. “There are tens of millions of birds [that] produce hundreds of millions of pounds of waste, and nobody knows they’re there.”

Dove wants to see tighter regulations for the poultry industry.

“In order to build a poultry barn housing millions of birds, all you have to do is get a building permit,” Dove said. “You don’t need to get a general permit from the state … and nobody checks up on them. They just build, and they do whatever they want to do out there. There’s no transparency when it comes to the poultry industry — zero.”

Small budget, big need

While flying over the Neuse River watershed, one of Baldwin’s and Dove’s colleagues made a startling discovery on Aug. 3, 2022. Samantha Krop, the Neuse River waterkeeper, said she noticed earthworks at White Oak Farm, which raised hogs and produced biogas using a new enclosed digester that’s been touted by industry boosters as a cleaner way to address the problem of waste.

Krop would eventually discover that there had been a major spill on the property that involved thousands of gallons of hog waste flowing into the nearby Nahunta Swamp, according to a Sound River news release. 

The spill was self-reported to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality by the farm owner in May when the event occurred. Still, the Raleigh News and Observer was the first to report Krop’s discovery widely in September.

On Dec. 2, 2022, DEQ fined White Oak farm $34,520 for permit violations related to the spill.

Despite the fine, some critics say the agency needs to do more and shouldn’t rely on SouthWings, volunteer pilots and environmental organizations to monitor animal facilities or other operations that may threaten the environment and humans. 

“The Division of Water Resources investigates all complaints, including those relayed to us by organizations that conduct flyovers of animal operations. The Department of Environmental Quality does not have the budget to conduct its own flyovers,” the department responded when asked why DEQ doesn’t conduct its own aerial surveillance.

DEQ’s resources and staffing issues may further hamper its ability to execute environmental enforcement. During a February legislative environmental committee meeting, DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser told the committee that there’s a 20 percent vacancy rate across her department.

A collaborative effort

Back on the ground and armed with a GoPro camera mounted to the Jeep and two still cameras (one with a telephoto lens), Baldwin and Dove head out to get a closer look at a few hog and poultry operations from ground level.

After entering the destination in the Jeep’s GPS, Baldwin talks about rallying community supporters to participate in the upcoming DEQ stakeholder input sessions for the 2024 Animal Feeding Operations Permit Renewal process. This permitting renewal process occurs every five years for swine, cattle and wet poultry facilities. Farm digester permits, issued in 2022, will also be added to the five-year cycle, according to Christine Lawson, environmental engineer Division of Water Resources.

“What we have difficulty getting done is having community [residents] show up,” Baldwin said. “A lot of it is because [the meetings] are done at inconvenient times or [held] at inconvenient places,” which makes it hard to receive comments.

Later by email, Baldwin reiterated the need for community participation during the permit renewal process.

“The upcoming 2024 Permit Renewals are an important issue in NC, as the permits also relate to the use of biogas. It is imperative that we get the citizens of NC to stand up, step up and speak up, so it is not just the traditional opponents who are heard from, including Waterkeeper Alliance and other environmental and environmental justice organizations.”

Dove summed up the contribution he and Baldwin make to the environmental community through sharing information such as aerial photography of CAFOs and reporting violations that they document with riverkeepers.

“We’re the boots on the ground, the boats in the water and the eye in the sky. And that makes us really different because, without the information we collect, the other groups would have very little to work with.”

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