O.K. It’s no secret. Pigs poop. A LOT!
Now if you live in China maybe that’s not so much of an issue with the mostly traditional-age old way of raising pigs in backyards in relatively small numbers. But if you happen to live in North Carolina it’s a different story altogether.
North Carolina is home to more than 2,000 Confined Animal Feeding Operations – better known as pig farms. North Carolina, home to 9 million pigs, is the nation’s second largest pork producer. Sampson County, the hog capital of eastern North Carolina, has 1.8 million pigs.
CAFOs rapidly expanded in North Carolina in the 1990s due to ineffective regulation, an industry-friendly state legislature and entrenched monopolies.
Back to the poop.
The vast amount of pig poop in North Carolina is stored in huge open-air waste lagoons. Also in the lagoons is a mix of whatever falls through the slots of the pig pens – stillborn pigs, blood, urine, and pesticides, – creating a foul-smelling, bacteria-laden toxic pink sludge. The lagoons are huge – the size of an Olympic swimming pool and often up to 30 feet deep.
And there are more than 4,000 lagoons in North Carolina with some 150 lagoons situated in flood-plains.
Which in a word makes North Carolina CAFOs vulnerable. Vulnerable to hurricanes.
State residents learned just how bad things can get when Hurricane Floyd lashed North Carolina back in September of 1999. Flood water breached 46 lagoons contaminating surface water with high concentrations of bacteria.
Then North Carolina governor James B. Hunt Jr. put it rather bluntly, saying, “We do have a practical problem here.” Uh yeah.
Two years before, Floyd North Carolina lawmakers passed the Clean Water Responsibility and Environmentally Sound Policy Act which placed a moratorium on construction of new farms with more than 249 hogs, expansion of existing CAFOs and building of new lagoons.
In 2007, lawmakers passed the Swine Farm Performance Standards Act which established a permanent ban on the building of new lagoons … but mandated no improvements on existing lagoons; however it allows pig farmers to replace their existing lagoons with new lagoons if they are deemed close to failure.
The Act does require new or expanded CAFOs to find another option to lagoons using “environmentally superior technologies.”
But as of 2014, only two of some 2,800 North Carolina pig farms opted for lagoon conversion.
And as history often repeats itself, North Carolina was struck by a second major hurricane in 2016.
Hurricane Matthew was Floyd all over again with the flooding of some 140 lagoons.
And now we have the aftermath of last month’s Hurricane Florence.
More than 130 lagoons compromised.
More than seven million gallons of hog waste escaped just two lagoons in Duplin and Sampson Counties and entered tributaries of the Northeast Cape Fear and South Rivers.
Up to now, I haven’t mentioned what entity has a monopoly on all those North Carolina CAFOs. It’s China-owned Smithfield Foods. Smithfield contracts about 1,200 of North Carolina’s twenty-two hundred CAFOs through a subsidiary called Murphy-Brown and it owns another 200 CAFOs.
And Smithfield has no interest in meaningful change in CAFO waste-management practices. The lagoons are just fine.
I think I can say that because back in 2000 Smithfield and North Carolina’s Attorney General Mike Easley played something of a shell game on the public. Together they worked on a plan which came to be known as the Smithfield Agreement.
The Agreement required Smithfield to fund development of “environmentally superior” waste management technologies.
The technologies had to be evaluated on whether they were economically feasible.
Well after years of research and development, guess what? None of the newly developed technologies were as cheap as hog lagoons. So nothing has changed.
Not too surprising really. It may be near impossible to find something costing less than a clay lined pit.
Not that there are not viable alternatives which will ensure public health safety.
North Carolina State University’s Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center published a report in 2013 that concluded a system developed by Terra Blue was a winner, replacing lagoons with open tanks that both protected groundwater as well as land and surface waterways. Solids are sold as fertilizer and the liquids are reprocessed.
I think it’s fair to say that Smithfield sees lagoon conversion as unnecessarily cutting into profits. At one point earlier this year, I thought maybe the ground was shifting.
Last April, 10 North Carolina residents “were awarded more than $50 million dollars against pork producer Murphy Brown, which contracts to Smithfield, the largest hog producer in the U.S.
At that time, another 25 CAFO lawsuits were pending against Murphy Brown.
But the hog-friendly North Carolina state legislature saw the danger. It has passed a bill and in June overridden a gubernatorial veto that now limits when and how North Carolina residents can file nuisance suits against CAFOs.
That foul stench out in North Carolina is coming from the lagoons, from Smithfield, from lawmakers and from contract pig farmers who together think there isn’t a problem.
Even the courts are in on the con.
Back in 2011 environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance sued Smithfield for violating the Clean Water Act.
By now you have likely come to the conclusion that nothing is going to change regarding Smithfield’s lagoons. And barring some unforeseen set of circumstances that results in huge health problems including many deaths you’re probably right. Imagine the outcry if we had created lagoons for human waste.
Well there ain’t no difference folks. Poop is poop.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.