Founded in 2014, the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) is MIT’s institute-wide effort to mobilize the substantial scientific, engineering, policy, and design capacity of the MIT community to address climate change and other important global environmental challenges.
ESI’s mission is “to advance science, engineering, policy and social science, design, the humanities, and the arts toward a people-centric and planet-positive future.” The Here & Real project directly engages with communities facing climate impacts, solutions and an emerging low-carbon economy. In 2021 ESI launched a new environmental journalism fellowship.
As one of five environmental journalists selected from around the country for the inaugural 2021 ESI Journalism Fellowship, I was tasked with delivering a high-impact news project that connects local perspectives, values and priorities with climate change science and solutions.
My two-part environmental justice series for North Carolina Health News looked at the impact of 30 years of industrial farming on the people in the coastal plains.
As large-scale hog and poultry industries continue to grow in eastern North Carolina, local residents push back against decades of air and water pollution.
The overwhelming majority of the state’s 2,100 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are located in Duplin and Sampson counties where hogs are said to outnumber people 40 to one. Meanwhile, the hogs are being outnumbered by poultry, an industry that’s been expanding in the region.
Since Smithfield opened the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse on the banks of the Cape Fear River in the town of Tar Heel 30 years ago, the people who live in these communities have been asked to shoulder the environmental burdens without sharing in the economic benefits. The residents have waged a three decades-long struggle for environmental and health justice and laws and regulations that protect them.
Courts agree that the people who live near the industrial hog farms in Bladen, Duplin and Sampson counties continue to suffer environmental harms, but state and local laws make it increasingly difficult to get justice.
It’s hard to keep track of the number of lawsuits, complaints, EPA filings and administrative challenges that have taken place since industrial hog farming started to dominate the state’s economy more than 30 years ago. Allegations of racism and environmental injustices have been at the heart of many of those battles.
Several studies have shown the health impacts on the mostly Black, Latino and Indigenous populations who live near these industrial farms After five jury losses and the 4th Circuit defeat, Smithfield settled with the plaintiffs.
Smithfield has paid out about $15 million to plaintiffs but these nuisance lawsuits appear to have done little to curb the behavior that spawned them in the first place. For mega companies like Smithfield, it is the cost of doing business. The pork industry has plenty of friends in state and local government who are willing to rewrite the laws to protect its interests.