Poultry Farm Aerial Investigations

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Poultry Farm Aerial Investigations

Our White Oak Waterkeeper recently went on a flight with SouthWings pilot, Rolf, to observe Poultry and Hog Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The goal of the flight was to identify farms in the White Oak River Basin and look for permit violations that can lead to contamination in waterways.

SouthWings is a nonprofit conservation organization that provides a network of volunteer pilots to advocate for the restoration and protection of ecosystems across the Southeast through flight. Partnerships with SouthWings provides unique opportunities to our own small nonprofit that allow the White Oak Waterkeeper to better observe pollution and assess water quality in our complex network of creeks and rivers.

PHOTO: DOVE, 2022 – SouthWings volunteer pilot, Rolf (Right) and White Oak Waterkeeper, Riley (Left).
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality defines a Poultry CAFO as a feeding operation where at least30,000 chickens are housed. CAFOs, or factory farms, are massive, windowless, production facilities where animals are confined in crates or stalls without access to sunshine, fresh air, or natural vegetation.

Poultry operations in North Carolina that use dry waste systems (dry litter poultry operations) are not required to obtain permits from the Division of Water Resources. However, while these operations are not required to apply for permits, they must follow general requirements as outlined in statutes and rules. Following are the first two requirements for all dry litter operations over 30,000 birds.

1. Litter shall not be stockpiled within 100 feet of perennial streams, waterbodies, or wells.

2. Stockpiled litter shall not be left uncovered for more than 15 days.

Other requirements can be read here.

Poultry waste, mixed with bedding and carcasses is stored in large piles that, when left uncovered, can easily be blown away by wind. And though this waste storage method is called “dry litter” it still contains liquid waste that can drain out of the pile and into adjacent waterways.

This discharge is entering our waterways, causing fecal bacteria contamination and loading nutrients into rivers and streams. On top of that, many of these operations were built in areas prone to flooding. This makes water unsafe to recreate in and can cause harmful algal blooms and fish kills. Communities surrounding these facilities are impacted with diminished quality of life due to overwhelming odors and health complications from air and water pollution. Check out our Water Quality for Fisheries program for more information on CAFO pollution.

PHOTO: LEWIS, 2022 – Dry litter piles sitting outside between the right two poultry barns.
North Carolina is the number one largest swine producer and third largest poultry producer in the nation, but with the rapid construction of new poultry facilities, our rank may climb.

Most hog and poultry CAFOs in the White Oak Water Basin are located in and around the Town of Richlands but specific locations of poultry CAFOs are not readily known. Because of the limited regulations, the NCDEQ does not have information on the location or waste disposal practices of many of these industrial-scale chicken and turkey farms.

Poultry CAFOs can be identified by the long barns that hold the birds and a shed used to cover and store the waste piles. This is different than the hog CAFOs that have large liquid waste lagoons adjacent to long barns. Pictured below is a poultry farm in the middle and a hog farm in the upper right corner.

PHOTOS: LEWIS, 2022 – A poultry CAFO (Left) and Hog CAFO (Upper right).
As part of the Pure Farms Pure Water campaign, CCRW calls attention to these destructive practices, advocate for environmental laws, and support traditional family farms.

Coastal Carolina Riverwatch wants to see poultry CAFO’s regulated by the NC Department of Environmental Quality. Without proper regulation and enforcement, large facilities that produce as much waste as a large city will continue to pollute Coastal Carolina’s waterways and threaten our quality of water and quality of life.

This holiday season please consider supporting a small, local farm when searching for pork or poultry products. Small efforts like these, help our community businesses and help protect water quality in your back yard.


Though many CAFOs cannot be seen from the road, please keep an eye out for any hog lagoons or uncovered dry litter piles that look (or smell) off and let the White Oak Waterkeeper know!

Riley Lewis,

White Oak Waterkeeper – Coastal Carolina Riverwatch


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