One of the chief jobs of government is to stand between us and dangers not easily seen or avoided: poison, electrocution, failing structures, good scams and bad oysters.
Government regulations and bureaucracy, so often viewed as standing between us and the promised land, make it possible to trust that the buildings we enter won’t fall down on our heads.
As knowledge of what endangers us changes, regulations must change. Industrial practices and safeguards to public health must keep up with what we know of the human condition and what sickens us. Perhaps there were political leaders who rallied against changing the permitted use of asbestos, DDT or lead-based paint. There is natural inertia in the status quo and political temptation to defend it.
Today, some of the industry practices of hog farming need immediate attention. So much more is now known about costs to human health, compromised groundwater, polluted streams and antibiotic loading that sparks new drug-resistant strains of infection. Whether it was ever adequate, our regulatory framework is not protecting us now. That inadequacy and the pork industry’s refusal to face genuine health problems lie heavy on our hope of public health.
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Rather than acknowledging medical science and engaging in a fair discussion of what we need to do as neighbors, it appears that the pork industry will be using Madison Avenue public persuasion and hardball politics to chill any such talks. We now have robo-calls at home, rallies in Raleigh and post cards declaring the talk of health concerns a threat to N.C. hog farmers. There are billboards declaring N.C. hog farming “An Honest Day’s Work” as if anyone thought otherwise.
As we’ve seen before, fear-mongering works. The Obama administration caved on field safety rule changes that would have kept pre-pubescent girls from working in toxic tobacco fields. These protections were sold to the hardworking agricultural community as an “attack on the family farm.”
Nothing helpful comes from ginning up a sense of “we are under attack” in the citizen farmer who is already bound to the corporate producer by debt and a weighty grower contract. Asking to discuss safe practices for farm families and ours is not an attack.
Rules must protect us without regard to the size or popularity of the industry – and do so without restriction beyond what is required. One public interest group, Waterkeeper Alliance, with many local riverkeeper organizations across North Carolina seems to have inspired this reaction with a number of billboards simply asking our governor and his administration to review and regulate industrial hog farming practices that harm us.
Sadly, the demagoguery began this month when pork industry representatives pointed fingers at Waterkeepers at a gathering on our Capitol lawn. Gov. Pat McCrory addressed the group but failed to focus on his delicate responsibility of maintaining core industry and public health or reassuring us that addressing public health concerns was good and necessary. Rather, he declared that hog farmers were under attack by “extreme groups” and that “they are trying to take your farms away from you and trying to take your businesses away from you.”
With the governor’s responsibility for maintaining protections, neither public confidence nor public health can afford his pandering and inciting fear in one side or the other. Another opportunity to lead slipped into a waste lagoon.
Our governor must demand a new day when vital industries are good corporate citizens and respected for that – but are not given a pass on damaging our health.
Harry Payne is the interim executive director of Toxic Free NC.