North Carolina is the second highest poultry producing state in the country after Georgia. The state’s nearly 6,000 poultry farms raise over 500 million chickens and turkeys each year with virtually no oversight or regulation.
Unlike the industrial hog farms which are heavily concentrated in the eastern part of the state, poultry farms are cropping up in every region of the state. The non-profit Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation works to protect the 8,900 miles of waterways from the dangers posed by the growing concentration of deemed permitted poultry farms in the Catawba-Wateree River Basin which provides drinking water for about 2 million people, the majority in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties.
There are roughly 700 facilities with about 1100 barns for a total of between 40 to 60 million chickens in the basin. “That’s just the ones we know about,” says Catawba Riverkeeper Brandon Jones. “They are primarily located in Alexander, Caldwell and Catawba counties. There are some in Union County, three in Gaston and a couple in Lincoln. The property values keep them out of Mecklenburg County.”
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I join Jones on his monthly trek to sample water from 10 sites in the basin. Eight are downstream of the poultry farms and the other two are tested as control sites. The objective is to document the impact of these poultry facilities on the water quality so that the state will do a formal study.
“We’ve documented almost 600 violations for those litter piles and storage and nothing changed,” says Jones.
The farms aren’t visible from the road but as soon as I exit my car at the first stop in Sugar Loaf township of Alexander County, I am hit by the overwhelming, noxious smell of chicken poop. This is an indication that the farmers have recently spread the chicken manure or piled it up after cleaning out the chicken houses.
“We don't really know what's going on with these operations because there's no public records,” says Jones. “They’re supposed to be following certain rules, but there's no accountability or inspections. They’re allowed to throw away the records after three years. The process is very sketchy and not at all transparent.”
The farmers operate under strict rules from the poultry companies with whom they’ve contracted. The baby chicks must be hatched and raised in identical facilities with a certain amount of lighting, ventilation, feed and antibiotics so that every chicken is the same. However, each farmer is solely responsible for the waste disposal.
Dry poultry litter is high in nitrogen and phosphorus, which can cause toxic algal blooms and water contamination if excess runoff gets into rivers, lakes, and drinking water. Section 404 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act makes it unlawful to discharge dredged or fill material into waters of the United States without a permit. However, agricultural runoff is exempted.
Chicken waste is a great fertilizer but the supply far outstrips demand. Because the waste is expensive to transport, many operations spread it as close to the facility as possible. “That is not about fertilizing, it's just about getting rid of the waste,” says Jones. Jones measures the water temperature, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, turbidity, and pH levels and posts the results online. The majority exceed bacteria levels that are safe.