Opinion

NC has a chance to cut hog waste pollution

Lawsuits pit hog farms against their neighbors

Three public nuisance lawsuits filed against Smithfield Foods and Murphy-Brown hog farm operations have so far been decided, with damages in excess of $500 million awarded to plaintiffs.
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Three public nuisance lawsuits filed against Smithfield Foods and Murphy-Brown hog farm operations have so far been decided, with damages in excess of $500 million awarded to plaintiffs.

People everywhere watched helplessly last fall as hurricanes Florence and Michael pounded North Carolina with a record 8 trillion gallons of rain that flooded hog waste lagoons and spilled their toxic content into our rivers, streams and wetlands.

But the full impact of the breached and over-topped lagoons was not apparent until a few weeks later, when NASA satellite images showed huge blooms of discolored organic matter spreading flower-like into the Atlantic from the mouths of North Carolina’s rivers.

How much of that was hog waste? We’ll never know. But those pictures helped energize a broad-based campaign to rein in North Carolina’s hog industry and hold it accountable for the social injustices, and environmental and public health disasters it is causing.

For years, North Carolina policymakers have been intimidated by the state’s $9 billion hog industry and its symbiotic, transactional relationship with the North Carolina General Assembly. Regulators often looked the other way as hog waste literally blanketed huge parts of the state and fouled our drinking water.

So far 4.1 million chickens and turkeys, and 5,500 hogs are dead in North Carolina from Hurricane Florence wind and floods. The numbers are expected to increase this week. The livestock death toll doubles that of Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

But now, in a process that occurs only once every five years, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is considering new permitting regulations — to be approved as soon as next month — for waste management that each of the state’s 2,300 industrial swine facilities will have to abide by in order to continue operating. And it is time for everybody — lawmakers, students, farmers, state politicians, and business leaders alike — to demand tough new regulations that will help open North Carolina’s path to a cleaner, healthier future.

North Carolina’s 10 million hogs produce about 9.5 billion gallons of waste a year that is stored in open-air lagoons the size of football fields and then sprayed on nearby land. Much of the waste seeps into groundwater and runs off into local rivers that ultimately provide drinking water for hundreds of thousands of residents.

During Hurricane Florence last fall, according to DEQ, at least six lagoons breached and 33 overflowed their tops, spilling at least 7.3 million gallons of hog waste into North Carolina’s waterways. This was predictable – it often happens during powerful hurricanes – but with stronger regulation, it is also preventable.

The public is fed up with the state’s irresponsible refusal to grapple with this problem and is starting to take matters into its own hands. In the last year, North Carolina juries awarded almost $550 million in compensatory and punitive damages in five cases where neighbors sued hog farms for not controlling the pollution, stench and public health consequences of their operations. Under North Carolina law, the actual payouts will be much less.

More modern, long-term solutions are needed, and ultimately, some of these massive open-air cesspools – particularly those in floodplains – will have to be closed. In the meantime, DEQ must show its mettle. The proposed new regulations are only a first step, but they should include common-sense measures for pollution control and transparency.

It is time for industrial pork giants to take responsibility for managing the waste their hogs produce and stop pushing it off on their subcontractors. And it is time for DEQ to stand up to the insidious influence of pork politics and impose new regulations to protect our land, our water and our health. North Carolina deserves better.

Dana Sargent is Deputy Director of Cape Fear River Watch. Ann Colley is executive director and vice president of The Moore Charitable Foundation and its North Carolina Affiliate, the Orton Foundation.

Video: Farmer Jeff Spedding talks about managing the lagoons on his hog farm near Magnolia, N.C. on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. Spedding uses the natural organic fertilizer from the lagoons on his rotating crops of corn, wheat and soybeans.

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