Hog farming is a messy business, especially in North Carolina, the nation’s No. 2 hog producer with a current hog population of 8 million. The state has welcomed the hogs as an important part of its agricultural industry. But it need not welcome the stink and pollution that come with factory farms known as CAFOs for concentrated animal feeding operations.
Public health concerns have led to the effective treatment of human waste, but hog waste is allowed to collect in open lagoons and be dispersed through field spraying. The result is the inevitable pollution of streams and rivers near the massive hog farm operations.
A recent study, conducted by Stephen Harden of the U.S. Geological Survey, documented the effect. It found higher levels of ammonia and nitrates in streams near the farms. Ammonia and nitrates contribute algae blooms that kill fish. In drinking water, high levels of nitrates can cause blood disease in infants known as “blue baby syndrome.”
Such pollution shouldn’t be accepted as a simple cost of doing business. The pork industry should be as upset about it as environmentalists are. Instead, the industry is choosing to deny the evidence and minimize the risk of CAFOs that produce millions of gallons of untreated waste daily.
The New & Observer’s Rose Rimler reported last week on the effort to assess Harden’s research. The N.C. Pork Council hired Bill Showers, an N.C. State professor and head of the university’s RiverNet program, which studies nitrogen changes in watersheds. Showers didn’t refute Harden’s findings. Instead, he said they were based on insufficient samplings that didn’t capture the complexity of watersheds. In turn, Ken Reckhow, a professor emeritus of water resources at Duke, disputed Showers’ criticisms.
Deborah Johnson, CEO of the NC Pork Council, says, “Protecting water quality is an important issue to our farmers. We are conducting our own research to better understand if and how our farms impact the rivers and streams around us.”
In the end, the problem of hog waste isn’t a matter of scientific speculation. It’s easily measured by anyone’s nose. Yet the pork industry won’t do what’s necessary to clean the air and water. It has dismissed more effective waste disposal methods as too expensive while ignoring the environmental and health costs of not making a bigger investment.
And when studies illustrate the damage, the industry doubts the messenger. Earlier this summer, a UNC study reported on surface water tests in Duplin County, the epicenter of North Carolina hog farming with about 2 million hogs and 60,000 people. The tests found bacteria with DNA matched to the digestive systems of hogs. In response, Angie Whitener Maier, the Pork Council's director of policy development and communications, told The Fayetteville Observer, “We question both the motivation for the study and its lack of credible conclusions.”
What makes the industry’s hear-no-evil approach to its own negligence more disturbing is that regulators have lost their bite. North Carolina’s Republican governor and legislative leaders are urging cooperation with big business and a reduction in environmental regulations.
And regulatory passivity isn’t limited to North Carolina. Giant, concentrated livestock farms are creating water problems around the nation. Bloomberg Business reported in August that the EPA, strapped by budget cuts and focused on implementing carbon emissions rules, let its enforcement actions against CAFOs drop to a seven-year low last year.
“These big manufacturing farms are just decimating waterways, and state and federal agencies are doing nothing to stop the pollution,” says Scott Edwards, co-director of Food & Water Justice, a project of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch.
Better waste treatment would stem pollution, but Edwards says the real issue is the size of the farms that annually can produce more hog waste in a few rural counties than all the sewage of New York City. “It’s not only a treatment issue. It’s a volume issue,” he says. “You just can’t treat that amount of waste.”
Scientists will keep studying the problem, but the problem will persist until regulators get up the gumption to say “enough” to waste that for too long has been too much.