Cleaning Up CAFOs with the Civil Rights Act

For decades, minority communities in North Carolina have suffered with the odors and pollution of industrial pig farms. They may finally get a reprieve thanks to a complaint submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Civil Rights. The complaint, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of several groups, argues that North Carolina’s permitting process for pig farms negatively and disproportionally affects minority communities and violates the Civil Rights Act.


Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, also known as “CAFOs,” are highly industrialized farms that streamline the production of meat, dairy, and eggs. CAFOs house large concentrations of animals and provide feed (rather than having animals graze or forage outdoors). However, this crowding not only creates poor living situations for the animals but also generates a significant problem: animal waste. Even the smallest CAFOs can generate as much fecal matter as 16,000 people. Larger CAFOs can produce more waste than a large U.S. city.

CAFO operators dispose of animal waste in a number of ways, including spraying it on fields or storing it in open air lagoons. Both practices can result in seepage or runoff into surface and groundwater. This fouls drinking water with a slew of contaminants, including pathogens and pharmaceuticals. Moreover, the waste emits toxic gases like methane and ammonia. Communities residing near CAFOs complain about odors that prevent them from spending time outdoors and contribute to respiratory ailments.

The Complaint

Home to more than 10 million hogs, North Carolina has one of the highest concentrations of pig CAFOs in the country. Communities living near these CAFOs have petitioned North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) since the 1990s, asking for improved regulations for sewage disposal. However, DENR’s renewal of its waste permit program for pig farms, released March 7, failed to require any alternatives to open lagoon storage and field spraying.

The complainants argue that DENR permits for pig farms represent racial discrimination because communities living near CAFOs are largely made up of minorities. They cite Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits programs receiving federal assistance from discriminating on the basis of race. North Carolina’s DENR receives federal funds and cannot develop policies that disproportionally burden minority communities.

While allegations of racial discrimination may seem like a stretch, this issue must be viewed in light of previous DENR actions. The complainants note that in the 1980s, DENR chose a predominately African American community as the site to dump soil contaminated with cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). They see the outdated practices for sewage control as yet another instance of racial discrimination. The complainants do not at this time allege that DENR is intentionally discriminating but argue that the agency's actions still violate both the Civil Rights Act and EPA regulations.

The Complainant's Requests

The complaint urges EPA’s Office of Civil Rights to take the following actions against DENR:

  • Investigate DENR’s failure to conduct an analysis of whether their permitting process creates disproportionate health and environmental impacts based on race. Ensuring that permits do not violate the Civil Rights Act is a prerequisite to receiving EPA funding.

  • Require DENR to conduct a robust analysis of the disproportionate impact of any future animal permitting processes before they are implemented.

  • Investigate whether DENR also violated the Civil Rights Act by knowingly authorizing a permit with inadequate protections for nearby minority communities.

  • Revise the permit to include pollution prevention systems, better monitoring, and public reporting requirements.

These actions would help EPA investigate whether DENR is indeed violating the Civil Rights Act. They would also help prevent future violations and reduce pollution associated with swine farms. If DENR fails to voluntarily come into compliance, the complainants urge EPA to freeze or terminate its funding.


The Earthjustice complaint is part of a larger history of using the Civil Rights Act to advocate for environmental justice. Nearly 300 such complaints have been submitted to EPA’s Office of Civil Rights since the 1990s, asking for EPA to investigate racial discrimination cases. Fewer than 20 have been accepted, however, with the vast majority being rejected on various grounds such as insufficient allegations or factual support.

Even so, there is hope because EPA has accepted several complaints in recent years. For example, in 2013, EPA agreed to investigate the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s decision to site a landfill near a predominately African American community. There is no guarantee that EPA will find merit in the allegations of racial discrimination, but the complaint ensures that the agency will investigate the claim, and that investigation alone may prompt changes.

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How about violations of the Animal Welfare Act?
good point