Nearly two decades after a Blue Ribbon Commission shed light on the government’s lax oversight of industrial-scale hog farms in North Carolina, the industry’s boosters are once again trying to hide from public scrutiny.
Senate Bill 762 seeks to prevent the public from seeing aerial photos of industrial swine farms and identifying their locations, leading us back to the time in which the industry was shielded from accountability. The impetus? Aerial photographs that were used to investigate potential violations of laws designed to protect human health and the environment.
The public has a right to know the locations of these farms and see the pictures of them. The industry wants to hide this information and has told the public not to worry about piles of dead pigs that have succumbed to a highly contagious virus, Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea.
The Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus has hit North Carolina’s industrial hog farms hard. As of April 27, North Carolina had the third-highest number of herds infected in the country, behind Iowa and Minnesota. Veterinarians with the U.S. Department of Agriculture emphasize that the virus does not harm humans, and that appears to be strictly true. At the same time, corpses of pigs that have succumbed to the virus are far from sanitary as they rot in open dead boxes or on the ground. The stacks of dead pigs attract vultures, flies, rats and other vermin.
Waterkeeper Alliance, the organization whose videos and photographs have documented this disturbing scene, asked North Carolina’s agriculture commissioner, Steve Troxler, to declare an emergency. Troxler balked at their request, calling it disrespectful of farmers.
The only disrespectful action here is the one the General Assembly is considering: gagging the public to shield the industry from scrutiny. Sadly, this has long been the industry’s reaction to efforts to improve oversight. Nationwide, the industry has supported laws to prevent the release of photos and videos documenting cruel treatment of the animals inside the factory barns. These are referred to as “ag-gag” laws because they seek to silence whistleblowers.
Swine industry supporters have promoted legislation in Congress that would ban the federal Environmental Protection Agency from using manned planes to inspect operations. And in North Carolina last summer, the industry secured legislation designed to shut the hog farms’ human neighbors out of our court system. Boosters of North Carolina’s industrial-scale hog factories have many friends in the General Assembly who have contributed heavily to many lawmakers’ campaigns, including Troxler’s.
While the General Assembly considers blanketing factory farms in secrecy, neighbors of hog farms around the state wait for relief from the stench, flies and polluted runoff. Although the state has adopted standards for industrial hog farms that would protect hog farmers’ neighbors, industry officials have refused to implement those technologies on a widespread basis. They have complained that it is more costly to install and operate cleaner waste disposal facilities. The costs of disease and pollution are borne by the public instead.
North Carolina’s agribusiness leadership insists that the best way to reduce the damage caused by industrial hog farms is to suppress the public’s right to know. One of the sponsors of SB 762 this year sponsored legislation last year that sought to criminalize the actions of whistleblowers seeking to investigate factory farms, such as the turkey abuse investigation of 2011.
On April 18, the USDA ordered new reporting requirements to track the spread of the pig virus as it figures out how to reduce its devastating impact. Turning the law against whistleblowers will not solve this problem, and neither will hiding the locations of farms from the public.
SB 762 needs to be defeated quickly. It’s long past time for North Carolina’s political leadership to demand that industrial hog farms convert to safer and cleaner technologies. Piles of pig corpses dead from Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus are only the latest in a long series of alarms. It is time for the General Assembly and Troxler to stop hitting the snooze button.
Ryke Longest is a clinical professor of law at Duke University School of Law and the Nicholas School of the Environment. Michelle Nowlin is a senior lecturing fellow at Duke University School of Law.