RALEIGH — Two environmental groups are calling on Gov. Pat McCrory to declare a state of emergency over a fast-spreading viral outbreak that has hit nearly a third of the state’s 3,000 major hog farms.
The Waterkeeper Alliance and the North Carolina Riverkeepers sent a letter and a public records request Thursday to state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, asking him to seek the declaration from McCrory and also release more information on the outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED).
The virus kills nearly every piglet born on infected farms for several weeks until the herd begins to develop immunity. Fueled by cold, wet weather, it has been hitting new farms at a rate of nearly 100 a week.
The water-quality watchdogs say they are particularly worried that hog farmers are burying massive numbers of dead animals where they will contaminate groundwater. Also, they say that in some cases dead hogs are left for days, piled in overflowing “dead boxes.” They say the blood and other liquids from those are seeping into groundwater and streams, and that animals feeding on the dead hogs are spreading the virus.
The environmentalists fear that the state isn’t collecting enough information about the numbers of dead hogs and where and how they are being disposed to know how big a threat the epidemic poses, said Gray Jernigan, a North Carolina-based staff attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international group.
“Basically we just feel like this is a serious enough problem that the government should be stepping in and getting involved and having direct contact with the facilities that are disposing of these dead hogs,” Jernigan said. “Since the outbreak began, we’ve certainly seen more hogs sent for disposal and gotten reports of mass burials, and it’s getting to the point where it’s fairly alarming.”
Brian Long, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said in an email Thursday that the department had received the letter and records request.
“We will review these requests and respond to the alliance as quickly as possible,” Long wrote. “The PED virus is an issue our Veterinary Division has been working on with USDA, agriculture departments in other states, and the industry.”
He noted that while the virus obviously has a serious impact on pigs, it cannot be spread to humans or other animals.
‘Aware of the situation’
McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis said his office had not received the letter from the environmental groups.
“However, we are aware of the situation and have already been in contact with the Department of Agriculture,” Ellis said by email. “Commissioner Troxler is monitoring the situation, and we’re confident he’ll request additional support from the Governor’s Office if needed.”
Deborah Johnson, chief executive officer of the N.C. Pork Council, an industry group, said she’s confident farmers are taking all aspects of PED seriously, including the disposal of dead pigs.
“This production-related disease is a matter of utmost importance to the entire pork industry,” Johnson said in a written statement. “It only makes sense that managing the mortalities associated with this virus is done in a responsible way – in accordance with established state regulations – to minimize any further impacts.”
There is no legal requirement for farmers to report information on the disease. Many of the state’s commercial hog producers have been voluntarily alerting State Veterinarian David Marshall’s office when the virus first appears on a farm. Using that information, his office has been tracking the movement of the epidemic and keeping farmers abreast of it.
Marshall said earlier this month that the data can’t be regarded as comprehensive since the reporting is strictly voluntary.
For the same reason, it’s unclear how many swine have died in North Carolina since the virus reached the state in June. Swine experts have estimated that perhaps 2 percent of the national herd has been killed. North Carolina is the nation’s second-largest pork producer, with nearly 9 million hogs.
The state is home to a relatively large proportion of the sow farms where piglets are produced and where the virus has had the most impact. Usually every piglet in an infected litter dies. Adult swine get sick but typically survive.
The waterkeepers and networks of volunteers that support their work routinely fly over large factory-style hog and poultry farms and keep an eye on them from the road and from adjacent property and streams, monitoring things like runoff, said Larry Baldwin, who coordinates the Waterkeeper Alliance’s work with those farms.
There has been a sharp uptick in sightings by air of burial pits and what appear to be recently-covered pits, and also in the number of hogs piled in dead boxes at farms waiting for pickup by disposal companies, Baldwin said.
The potential threat to groundwater is a serious matter in Eastern North Carolina, where most of the state’s hog farms are and where many people get their drinking water from wells, Baldwin said.
“The water table here is not very deep, and basically with the pits, they throw them directly into the groundwater,” he said. “They decay into it.”
State law on disposal
A declared state of emergency would trigger state guidelines for disposing of large numbers of dead livestock, though the guidelines are simply that. They were developed by the state in 2011 in response to the public health risks that arose after nearly 30,000 hogs died in heavy flooding after Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Among other things, the guidelines say that the dead animals should be buried above the seasonal high water table and at least 300 feet from wells used for public water supply. It also says a record of the burial locations and details such as the number of dead animals in each site should be turned over to the local health department, which should then forward the data to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Long, in his email, noted that there is a state law regarding the disposition of dead domesticated animals. Among other things, it requires that they be buried at least 300 feet from streams or other public bodies of water, at least three feet deep and that they be buried within 24 hours.
Also, state and local health authorities have broad authority to step in if there is a threat to human health, though Jernigan said the state doesn’t seem to be collecting enough information to know how serious any problem might be.
PED is easily spread, and some swine veterinarians and hog farmers think that eventually it will hit virtually every farm in the state, then over time become a much less serious problem as the herds develop immunity. Some think that the spread of the virus, which thrives in cold wet weather, seems to be peaking now, and that new cases will likely decline with warmer weather.