RALEIGH— Farms that are investigated by the state could be shielded from the public records law under a new bill making its way through the North Carolina General Assembly.
The Senate voted Wednesday to agree to a bill that would shield the Department of Environment and Natural Resources from disclosing complaints and investigations on farms. The bill, which now awaits a House vote, is opposed by critics who say it would shield farm operators from public scrutiny and discourage citizens from reporting law violations they see on industrial farms.
But backers such as the N.C. Farm Bureau, say the proposal would help protect farmers from the stigma of false complaints and encourage grow in the farm industry.
Under the bill, records could be released only by court order if the state determines a violation has occurred. The state could also refuse a complaint if it finds the complaint was made in bad faith.
"It's trying to avoid the many opportunities where certain groups mistakenly consider a pile of silage from the air as ... chicken litter, which has happened," said Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, who sponsored the legislation.
The N.C. Farm Bureau said the legislation would protect farms and their operators particularly when complaints are filed in bad faith.
"It creates this stigma that farmers are engaged in activities that they're not engaged with," said Jake Parker, a spokesman for the Farm Bureau. "It's like anybody else; when you're accused of something you haven't done and it's made public that has some impact on their reputation."
The Sierra Club has said the bill is misdirected.
"This provision is kind of a solution looking for a problem. It seems unnecessary because it seems we already have protections for that kind of thing," said Cassie Gavin, a spokeswoman for the group. "Any exemption of public record law is taking away information from the public."
Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, agreed and questioned why the industry should be exempt from the law.
"It's very bad policy, and notwithstanding other parts of the bill, I have a real problem with it from a public records perspective," he said.
The state has received about 430 agriculture-related complaints between January 2009 and June 2014, an average of six to seven complaints per month, said Susan Massengale, a spokeswoman for DENR.
The percentage of those complaints deemed "frivolous," or not found to violate any state environmental laws, vary from about 30 to 80 percent depending on the region, according to the state.
The bill gives DENR leeway when deciding when to investigate a farm if it finds that the initial complaint was filed in bad faith, but the division will continue to review all complaints, with a variety of factors considered, Massengale said.
"One complaint of a facility does not mean that further complaints will not be ignored," she said. "It is still important to us that if people see things that they think are problems with water quality that they let us know because we only have so many people working for this division."
DENR has seven regional offices with 10 fulltime staff members statewide that review complaints on a variety of potential environmental violations.
The bill also directs the agency to create new rules for a formal complaint procedure. It prohibits local governments from enacting laws banning certain types of fertilizer except in issues of state quality water standards. It also prohibits ATVs on private land without written permission from the landowner.
The farming industry contributes $78 billion to the state's economy, accounts for more than 17 percent of the state's income, and employs 16 percent of the work force. North Carolina exports $3.9 billion in agricultural products. There are more than 52,000 farms in North Carolina, averaging 168 acres, according to the state.