Environmentalists have won a round in an ongoing dispute between a massive egg farm neighboring a national wildlife refuge in northeastern North Carolina.
A Hyde County superior court judge ruled Friday that the state has the authority to regulate airborne emissions under federal clean-water law – even though Republican lawmakers tried to protect the egg company from that regulation through legislation passed last year.
Judge Wayland J. Sermons Jr. said an administrative law judge must hold a hearing on whether the airborne emissions from a ventilation system at Rose Acre Farms polluted nearby waterways.
The judge also ruled that there were significantly higher levels of fecal coliform, ammonia nitrogen, inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus recorded in those streams since the egg farm opened.
The farm holds more than 3 million hens in 12 high-rise hen houses near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. It received a permit to operate in 2004 under the federal water law. The state renewed its permit in 2010 but, because of the nearby water pollution, required the company to investigate if emissions were settling into streams.
The company objected, saying the state didn’t have the authority to regulate air emissions under the water law. An administrative law judge agreed, but the state Environmental Management Commission reversed that ruling.
The company filed suit to stop that from happening, and was joined by the N.C. Poultry Federation, indicating that the case has broader implications for livestock operations across the state and the nation. Three environmental groups also intervened in the lawsuit in support of the state: the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation, Waterkeeper Alliance and Friends of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Inc.
Last year, the Republican majority in the General Assembly tried to plug what it saw as a gap in the law by passing legislation saying an airborne emission could not be considered a water discharge. The new law was part of a wide-ranging package easing environmental restrictions.
But the Hyde County judge ruled that the new law doesn’t automatically mean the lawsuit has to be dismissed because an administrative law judge must first hold a hearing to determine whether the egg farm is discharging air contaminants or something else.
Rose Acre Farms attorney could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Earthjustice, a non-profit public-interest law firm, and the Raleigh law firm of Lynch & Eatman represent the three environmental groups.