First Posted: 1/15/2009
LUMBERTON - Bonnie Dew told the Robeson County Health Board that she returned to rural Robeson County three years ago thinking the fresh country air would help her asthma.
The Rowland native says she has never been more wrong in her life.
Dew, who lives less than a mile from a poultry farm on Fair Bluff Road, said the odor from the chicken houses there have made her sicker.
“It's sad. It is killing me and I'm going to have to move,” she said. “It is sheer hell most days.”
Dew was one of about 20 people who met with the board Thursday to ask that something be done about how the county regulates poultry production.
The residents, who have homes near Dan Lewis Farms Inc. in Barnesville, asked for the meeting last month after the Health Department decided to grant Lewis a permit to build four chicken houses. Health officials say they had no choice because of state laws.
The neighbors want the board to place a moratorium on additional poultry production so the long-range effects on public health and the environment can be studied.
Theresa Messersmith, who lives in the Barnesville less than a quarter of a mile from the Lewis Farms, said intensive livestock operations like Lewis' not only cause odor problems, but runoff from farms contaminate the soil and water.
Messersmith presented the board with a four-page report on the ill effects of poultry production, such as asthma and typhoid fever, increased traffic from chicken trucks and an increased burden on the county health system.
“It is unfair to expect the residents of the county to sit idly by while their health, environment and overall quality of life is being taken away,” Messersmith said. “The toxic and potentially hazardous emissions from the houses force residents into their homes and deny them the right to quiet enjoyment of the property. If you can smell, it is in the air and riding on dust particles that are inhaled.”
James Cochran, the area poultry agent for the Robeson County Agriculture Extension Service, told residents that while state law has strict regulations on hog production, the rules governing chicken houses are less rigorous.
“The farmers are required to soil test every year and sample the litter coming out of the houses, too,” Cochran said. “But no one inspects poultry farms like swine farms.”
Cochran said there are about 70 poultry farms in the county with an average of five chicken houses per farm. Each house creates about 180 tons of manure a year, which is disposed of by spreading and plowing or spading it under the soil.
Robeson County generates more than $75 million a year from poultry. The county is ranked seventh in the state in poultry production.
“It is a $2.2 billion industry in North Carolina,” Cochran said.
He added that Robeson residents consume more than 2 million birds each year.
The residents said they do not dispute the value the industry brings to the county, state and nation.
“I love chicken,” Rick Hunt said. “I probably eat it three times a week, but there needs to be some kind of guidelines and regulations. We don't want to be faced with some of the same problems that other states are now trying to deal with.”
Erskine Floyd said he shouldn't have to move from an area where he has lived all his life, but may have to.
“I'm 70 years old,” Floyd said. “I may not look it but I am. I'd like to live the rest of my days in a place where I can breath.”
When Floyd and other residents asked Health Board members what they thought of residents' concerns, board Chairman Noah Woods said it was not the time for officials to comment.
“We're here to listen to what you have to say,” said Woods, a county commissioner.
Woods tried to reassure residents that the county has been at the forefront of regulating livestock production. He said Robeson was the first county in the state to adopt an intensive livestock ordinance in 1995.
“I'm not trying to brag, but we were doing things when no one else in the state was,” Woods said. “If we need to amend this ordinance and can do it legally, we will. It is just like the U.S. Constitution, if it needs to be fixed, it will be.”
Woods said the board would review the information provided by residents and talk with agriculture, health and legal experts about any changes that could be made. But he added that the county cannot enforce regulations that are stricter than state law.
“The state has set some rules governing poultry and we can't supersede the state,” he said. “But we will look at this pro and con and try and work with you.”
Woods said there would be another public hearing to announce whatever decision the board makes.
Messersmith said she was satisfied that the board has taken the residents' concerns seriously.
“That's what we wanted,” Messersmith said. “It makes us feel good to know that someone is listening.”