Ford

Living with those lovely lagoons

Editorial Page EditorMay 1, 2011 

Say this for North Carolina's pork industry, second largest after Iowa's: It provides jobs. It helps families buy the groceries, pay the rent or mortgage, keep the kids in shoes that fit and, when the time comes, send those kids to college.

But in exchange for those benefits, the state has had to endure an outsized aggravation ration.

Bad weather, or horrible weather of the kind that's recently ripped through our eastern counties, brings to mind what can go wrong at the huge factory-style hog farms tucked into our rural landscape.

If a tornado were to strike one of those farms, that would be a potentially disastrous setback for the owners. But there's another kind of risk with a wider scope. It relates to the retention ponds, or lagoons, in which the animals' water-diluted waste is stored. Torrential rain that can accompany extreme weather puts those lagoons under stress.

In some cases - fortunately, it's been several years since a serious incident - they have been known to burst, releasing their noxious contents to flow into streams and rivers.

Even when the weather isn't an issue, lagoon contents can seep into the groundwater, polluting nearby wells. And the normal procedure is to spray lagoon brew onto adjacent fields, where crops absorb waste components. Usually the system works. When it doesn't, what results is polluted runoff.

Perhaps the least surprising downside of hog lagoons: They can yield a powerful stink. And the ammonia that wafts from them fouls the air.

Dating to the mid-1990s - when The N&O won a Pulitzer Prize for public service for its examination of the hog industry's threats to the environment - the state has made progress toward reducing those threats.

But the goal that should be the top priority in those efforts remains elusive. That goal is to achieve a transition away from the lagoon-and-sprayfield method of waste disposal to methods that work better all around - reliable, minimal risk of failure, minimal odor and air pollution.

Researchers at N.C. State University identified at least one method that appeared feasible. But cost became the issue. Suffice it to say that there's been no big rush among hog growers to break out of their lagoon-and-sprayfield comfort zone.

The General Assembly has made some efforts to move the process along. As part of their most notable attempt to put hog farming on a sounder environmental footing, legislators in 2007 decided that new farms could not use lagoons. But that was then and this is now.

Consider Senate Bill 501, which cleared the Senate unanimously on Wednesday. Taken in isolation, the bill seems pretty innocuous. It allows for an upgrading of barns, or "swine houses," at hog farms in operation or given necessary permits before Oct. 1, 1995.

The barns could be constructed or renovated, so long as no more hogs were allowed on the premises, and so long as there was no increase in the amount of waste the farm was permitted to generate.

Taken in context, however, the bill amounts to an industry giveaway. That context includes, first, a moratorium on new hog farms that took effect in October, 1995 and lasted until 2007. Between the moratorium and market conditions that then made it infeasible to expand, the industry's footprint hasn't changed much over the years. Then there was the coupling of permission for new or expanded hog farms with requirements that stricter anti-pollution standards be met, sans lagoons.

The pending bill would undermine that approach by allowing older farms - essentially all farms now in operation - to be rehabbed, if not enlarged, without any such environmental improvements.

This would have been a golden chance to exert some leverage on the industry. If a grower wanted to build a new hog house on his pre-1995 farm, fine. Just make the switch to an environmentally preferable waste technology, per the experts at N.C. State. He could even be signed up for the state's cost-sharing program (well, the 2007 law included such a program, but these days money for that sort of thing is as scarce as hogs' wings).

Instead, the growers would get to replace their old barns without lifting a finger to upgrade their waste systems.

"There's this complete refusal to keep encouraging and pushing the industry to get past this hurdle," said Jane Preyer, Raleigh-based Southeast director for Environmental Defense, which flagged Senate Bill 501 as a bad piece of business that goes beyond rebuilding in the wake of, say, a tornado.

North Carolina's hog growers may have been bucking economic headwinds in recent years, but new opportunities could knock. Just last week, South Korea's ambassador toured a hog farm near Benson, talking up pork export prospects. There may be an incentive to invest.

Hanging overhead amidst all this is the legislature's move to weaken state environmental oversight via budget cuts. The hog industry could gain even more running room in a state whose slogan could well be "More pigs than people."

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com

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