Point of View

The prolonged stench of inaction on NC hog farms

February 24, 2014 

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Hog houses and lagoons stack up near Faison in 1998.

CHRIS SEWARD — Chris Seward

Not long ago, there were approximately 20,000 traditional family farmers raising about 2 million hogs in North Carolina. Back then, folks could sit out on their porches enjoying a good cookout with family and friends without fearing that the stench of feces and urine from a factory swine facility would ruin their day.

There were no massive public demonstrations complaining about quality of life issues caused by swine farms. Rural property values were not depressed by these farms. These hog farmers had learned to live in harmony with their neighbors.

Life is very different now. Nearly all of those traditional family farms have given up on hogs. Now North Carolina has about 2,000 swine factories housing up to 10 million hogs. These aging hog factories flush raw hog feces and urine into open pits, many larger than football fields. Hog industry supporters call them “lagoons,” but no one is sunbathing near these cesspools. When these open pits get full, their odorous waste is sprayed and dumped onto heavily ditched fields, many of which adjoin the homes and property of local residents, schools and churches. These swine farms harm their neighbors needlessly by resisting cleanup.

This happened in the poorest rural communities where residents had little chance of fighting back against powerful special interests. Boosters of North Carolina’s industrial-scale hog factories have many friends in the N.C. General Assembly. The General Assembly has promoted industrial hog farming for decades. Last session, lawmakers even succeeded in shutting the swine farm’s human neighbors out of our court system. This session, they plan to kill puppy mil0l regulations that the Pork Council has opposed. Meanwhile, the odor factories crank on along.

For the past 15 years, voluntary efforts to improve the lives of hog farm neighbors have failed to make a change. While new technologies that drastically clean up the air, water and land at hog farms have been tested, they cost more than cesspools, and voluntary conversion has occurred only when outsiders – whether governments or industrial sponsors seeking a better way – pay for it. At other farms, the stench produced by millions of hogs makes many people miserable.

Frustrated by the government’s failure to help them, approximately 500 private citizens have resorted to the courts to regain their quality of life and to be compensated for the pain and suffering they have endured. Community advocacy groups, like our Riverkeeper organizations and the Waterkeeper Alliance, have also filed legal actions in an effort to stop these industrial meat factories from destroying North Carolina’s rivers and streams through pollution.

Access to justice is the cornerstone of our N.C. Constitution. The hundreds of North Carolinians who are fighting the General Assembly and the hog industry to get back their rights deserve their day in court. These folks are trying to solve a problem that our General Assembly has repeatedly failed to fix.

Last fall, North Carolina’s Pork Council attributed this statement to board member Don Butler: “We believe that these threats of lawsuits are nothing more than an attempt at a money grab by greedy out-of-state plaintiff’s lawyers.” Butler’s objection to out-of-state help for North Carolinians was quite ironic given that he was employed by out-of-state corporation Smithfield Foods. In turn, Smithfield was being purchased by Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. headquartered in Hong Kong.

Most of North Carolina’s hogs are now owned by subsidiaries of Shuanghui, which should have been committing to clean-up operations in North Carolina rather than paying Smithfield’s shareholders a 30 percent premium. Given that Shuanghui paid $4.7 billion for Smithfield, there is clearly enough cash in the business to eliminate lagoons.

Meanwhile, contract growers risk their livelihoods if they speak against the new owners of the hogs they raise under contract. They own the barns and the debts on their farms but do not own the pigs, and so their production contracts leave them little alternative than to toe the company line.

Shuanghui could help its growers protect their neighbors and eliminate these lagoons. Cleaning up the industrial hog industry is long overdue.

Ryke Longest is clinical professor of law at Duke University School of Law. Rick Dove is Neuse Riverkeeper emeritus.

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