The more people learn about the health and environmental consequences of industrial meat production, the more alarmed they become. But the industry and its friends in the legislature are trying to very quietly gut one of the few effective protections Tar Heels have against the “lagoons” and sprayfields polluting our state.
Buried within two bills under consideration by the North Carolina legislature are provisions designed to eliminate long-standing public health and environmental protections at industrial-scale swine confinement facilities – SB 513 and HB 760. These bills, covering subjects as diverse as horse industry promotion, oversize vehicle limitations, road weight limitations and meteorological tower markers, also include a short provision that would gut the requirements of North Carolina’s 17-year-old prohibition on the expanded use of lagoons and sprayfields at industrial-scale hog facilities.
Facilities that have been closed for up to 10 years would be allowed to reopen without complying with basic water quality and public health protections enacted with bipartisan support in response to massive public health and environmental problems across North Carolina’s coastal plain.
If exempted, facilities that have long been closed can reopen and will discharge animal waste to surface water and groundwater through direct discharge, seepage, or runoff; emit large quantities of ammonia and other odorous compounds into the air; release disease-transmitting vectors and airborne pathogens; and cause nutrient and heavy metal contamination of soil and groundwater.
This is unacceptable. There is simply no reasonable basis
for this proposal, and industry advocates have articulated none. Despite the fact that the bill is aimed at facilities that have been closed for up to 10 years, N.C. Pork Council spokesperson Angie Whitener Maier said recently in the Fayetteville Observer that the bill is needed to prevent “farmers from going out of business.”
This is nonsense. The facilities are not in business and haven’t been for up to 10 years. Surely our representatives would not endanger the public and the invaluable water resources of North Carolina’s coastal plain upon such a flimsy justification. If there is some sound public policy reason to change a well-established, scientifically grounded law that addressed a major public health problem, I hope the legislature would engage in vigorous debate and engage the public rather than stick industry language into a catch-all bill that is flying under the radar.
The law in North Carolina is clear and simple: If you want to reopen, expand or build a new a swine confinement facility, you cannot use a waste lagoon and sprayfield system because these systems cause discharges of animal waste to waters, cause air pollution and release pathogens into the environment. In 1996, the now foreign-owned Smithfield Foods and Murphy-Brown committed to replace these outdated and unsafe systems with a system that would not threaten the environment and public health. They still haven’t done so because they assert it is not “economically feasible.”
Smithfield Foods, the parent company of Murphy-Brown, is a $15 billion global food company and is the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor. China’s biggest pork producer, Shuanghui International Holdings, Ltd., purchased Smithfield in 2013 for $4.7 billion, about 30 percent over the company’s assessed value. After the acquisition, Shuanghui changed its name to WH Group Ltd. and raised an additional $2.05 billion by going public in 2014.
Instead of allowing these corporations to expand their operations
by reopening outdated, unsafe lagoon and sprayfields in North Carolina, the legislature should be moving to require Murphy-Brown, Smithfield and WH Group to honor their 15-year-old commitment to replace these systems and support North Carolina’s farmers.
It is time for WH Group, Smithfield and Murphy-Brown to use their record profits to address the problems their business has created in North Carolina. These corporations must either pay North Carolina’s farmers enough to make it economically feasible to operate a swine facility without endangering the public or provide the funding necessary to do what they committed to do 15 years ago – implement Superior Waste Treatment Technology at their facilities and their contract grower facilities.
It is economically feasible for these corporations with “soaring” profits to invest in North Carolina’s future and honor their commitments to North Carolina’s residents. It is not economically feasible for North Carolina lawmakers to allow swine waste to pollute the air and waters of North Carolina’s coastal plain to serve the profit motives of a $15 billion global food corporation.
Heather Jacobs Deck is the Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper.