The environmental group American Rivers is a credible, cautious, thoughtful and precise organization, and the fact that it lists the Neuse and Cape Fear rivers in North Carolina as among the “most endangered” in the country is alarming.
The risk, the group says, comes from “the threat industrial agricultural waste poses” to drinking water. In this state, that waste comes from hog farms and poultry farms, and if, for example, a hurricane brings much flooding, wastes can be discharged into waterways. It happened, river keepers say, during Hurricane Matthew in October.
Representatives of hog producers said the greater threat to rivers is from cities and that criticism of the problem of agricultural waste is part of a coordinated attack on farmers, including hog and poultry farmers. It’s a weak defense and a nonsensical one. Such farms are important to North Carolina’s economy, and no one is suggesting they be put out of business.
What is important, as family farms have increasingly diminished in favor of large, industrial-type agricultural operations, is to strengthen environmental protection.
The hog industry, of course, came under overdue scrutiny after massive lagoon spills in the mid-1990s (and a News & Observer series on hog farms demonstrated how lax regulations were).
But the industry has continued to fight regulation.
For its part, the state launched the Swine Buyout Program in 1999 after three hurricanes flooded hog farms. The program was voluntary and some swine production and development rights were bought from hog farms in the 100-year flood plain. That helped.
Unfortunately, the program isn’t now funded, though American Rivers is advocating that it be restored. The state also needs to keep pushing for strong regulation of farms and a renewed interest in alternative waste disposal systems.
Thankfully, the state’s rivers are safe for recreation. But make no mistake: Waterways are at risk. The state can lower that risk with regulation, and the agricultural industry should not be calling the shots.