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North Carolina is one of the country's largest poultry producers — and getting bigger. Large-scale chicken farms are spreading across the state. Government regulations have allowed these farms to get much closer to where people live. That's not just a nuisance. Neighbors say it's also a potential health hazard.
Craig Watts is an industrial chicken farmer in Fairmont, N.C. He contracts with Perdue and has raised birds for more than 20 years. Still, he says sometimes it's a struggle to meet the demands of the industry.
"They don't have to spend 24/7 with that chicken and have to deal with its waste. I deal with it and that kind of stuff. It's a good situation for them," Watts says.
His birds produce 700 tons of poultry waste each year, and he's responsible for it. It's spread in nearby fields and sold to farmers for fertilizer. Watts' operation is one of thousands of confined animal feeding operations in the state.
These large-scale chicken farms are popping up near residential areas in western North Carolina, especially in Surry County. That worries residents Terry and Mary Marshall. "Your throat starts to hurt — you know you are in it," Terry says. "It smells like a lot of ammonia, and sometimes, just dead rotting meat."
The waste is a combination of manure, feed and carcasses — which can cause harmful gas emissions. Mary says there are dust particles in the air and it can be hard to breathe. "We had some friends over to the house," she says, "several people one night, and it was so bad, they had flashlights out in the front yard and you could see" 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. These dry-litter poultry operations are exempt from state odor ordinances, and federal regulators don't monitor their air emissions.
"I think what you are seeing here is the influence of a very powerful industry over state legislatures and over the federal government," Scott says. "To the point where even the Environmental Protection Agency has not stepped up to regulate these facilities, despite the fact that we know they are polluting waterways across the country."
The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't see it that way. Allison Wiedeman of the EPA's Water Permits Division says water quality regulations have been in place for years, and states can enforce additional requirements on poultry producers.
"We see that it's working," she says. "We know that these facilities have to have permits if they discharge, and so all I can tell you right now is that the process is working."
Just how much waste is produced is unknown. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality says it doesn't have a system to track these dry litter systems.
Bob Ford with the North Carolina Poultry Federation says more regulation would hurt the industry, which is worth $34 billion to the state economy. He adds odor and other issues are the farmer's responsibility, but he acknowledges companies could be more involved. "There's always room for improvement on anything what we do out here," Ford says. "Maybe we can try to use more buffer zones or tree planting to reduce the impact."
Tyson and Perdue, two major companies that contract with independent farmers, both declined interviews for this story. They did release statements that said their farmers are required to follow the law. But the laws don't offer any protections for Terry and Mary Marshall.
Mary says it's already too late for her neighborhood. "I have to hold myself together all of the time," she says. "I knew it was going to be bad, but I had no idea it was going to be this bad."
Mary is lobbying state lawmakers and says she wants future chicken farms away from residential areas, and something to control the odor and pollution, which she says will get worse in the hot North Carolina summers.
Keri Brown reports for member station WFDD in Winston-Salem, N.C.