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Hog Farmers Happy as Pigs in...

by Brent Kendall


If you have turned on the television or radio lately, odds are you have seen or heard a political message about NC's hog farmers or about municipal waste run-offs.

These messages have been paid for by an outfit calling itself "Farmers for Fairness." The group's aim is to build opposition to those who favor increased regulation of the hog farming industry.

What is this organization? In the past few weeks, controversy has surrounded attempts to classify the organization. FFF applied for and received tax-exempt status as a membership/trade group. Tired of being hammered by FFF ads, State Rep. Cindy Watson (a Republican from Duplin county) complained the group violates state election laws and argued the group is nothing more than a disguised Political Action Committee. House Speaker Harold Brubaker (R-Randolph) has since launched an investigation to determine if indeed the group constitutes a PAC.

Financial records obtained by the campaign finance watchdog group Democracy South show FFF's expenditures from June 1996 to May 1997 totaled $1.4 million; of this total, more than $900,000 was spent on "media costs."

Significant amounts of money are being spent for media time, and some State Republicans are actually lining up against big business. What is all the fuss over?

The 1991 opening of the Carolina Food Processors, Inc. slaughterhouse in Bladen County signified North Carolina's emergence as a prominent player in the hog industry. Hindered by other states' regulations, large scale hog farmers enticed the Tar Heel State with promises of economic windfall for largely rural, eastern counties in need of growth. But growth arrived with a devastating environmental price tag.

The present NC hog population stands around 13 million, more than three times the population from just seven years ago. In this same period, the number of hog farms has actually decreased as the larger scale operations have rendered smaller farmers unable to compete. More hogs at less sites means that while waste quantities have increased, the number of facilities to handle the waste have decreased.

This scenario presents nearly unmanageable problems. The average hog produces four times as much waste as the average human. An editorial in The Charlotte Observer likens the mass hog infusion to "putting the population of three or four New York cities - 30 to 40 million people - in Eastern North Carolina with no sewer system."

The state classifies hog and other livestock operations as "non-discharging" systems, meaning that operators are forbidden from directly dumping waste into NC waters (through pipes, ditches, etc.). The industry's claims, aired frequently in those television commercials mentioned previously, that they do not discharge animal waste into our waters isˇat least on the surfaceˇtrue.

Yet the industry contributes significant pollution despite legal compliance. Hog producers flush waste from barns into large lagoons. The accumulated waste is then sprayed over farmland to fertilize crops. The lagoons pose a serious environmental hazard because they can overflow, especially in severe weather. In Hurricane Fran's aftermath, aerial photos documented such spills.

Michelle Nowlin, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), explains, "We don't know, and will never know, how much waste they dumped into our rivers and streams, because hog production facilities were not covered by permits that require monitoring of wastewater and reporting violations."

Livestock facilities are not required to report lagoon leakage resulting from severe rainstorms. The State Division of Water Quality cannot legally demand this information. When instances are discovered, it usually results from a local resident's complaint.

The waste recycling techniques of crop spraying pose a serious threat as well. While the spraying can be an effective farming tool, it is difficult to determine how much recycled waste farmlands can handle. This "agronomic rate" varies, and no research conclusively determines that spraying at or below the rate protects the groundwater. In addition, over-spraying is a serious problem.

Once soil is saturated, the sprayed waste runs off directly onto other properties, rivers, and streams. Presently, no program exists for monitoring waste levels in surrounding rivers and streams.

Hog waste increases nitrogen and phosphorus levels in surrounding waters, speeding the growth of algaeˇwhich stifles aquatic lifeˇand diminishing water quality.

The Albemarle and Pamlico sounds are affected as well. Hog waste evaporates into the atmosphere as ammonia. The resulting precipitation falls into the sounds, creating abnormally high nitrogen levels.

According to a report by Senator Tom Harkin (a Democratic Senator from Iowa, another state plagued with corporate hog farm production), ten million NC fish died as a result of animal waste spills in 1995. Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, a NCSU pfiesteria expert, claims the hog industry is at least partially to blame for last year's deadly outbreaks of this odd microbe, which killed innumerable fish and contaminated the coastal food supply. From an economic standpoint, the hog industry has caused severely reduced property values near industrial areas, where the air stinks and the drinking water may be contaminated.

More threatening may be the damage to NC's lucrative tourism industry as the state's environmental problems become nationally known. People don't want to swim in polluted waters.

On August 27, 1997, NC political leaders finally addressed the pollution problem by placing a two-year moratorium forbidding the creation of new hog farms and the expansion of existing operations. The moratorium also restored local zoning authority over large hog operations. Counties had previously been powerless to regulate the locations of new hog farms. The moratorium is only a temporary solution; new farms can be created after March 1999 unless the restriction is extended.

The SELC believes the state must take four necessary steps to reduce hog farming's impact on surrounding areas. First, hog operations must be required to use the latest technology to modernize waste treatment and disposal practices. Secondly, producers must practice better odor control. Third, counties must use their new zoning powers to keep future hog operations away from residences and schools. Lastly, the state must strengthen its regulations, by making operating permits more difficult to obtain and monitoring procedures more comprehensive.

The EPA is working to create national pollution controls for hog, poultry and other livestock operations. Yet the current strategy proposal would not require better pollution controls in most facilities until 2005. "EPA's strategy fails to address the immediate impacts of current poor animal waste practices," said Joe Rudek, a senior scientist for the NC Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Both the EDF and SELC strongly believe the EPA must reduce the timetable for issuing permits and enacting stricter controls.

"North Carolina learned the hard way that postponing environmental controls over industrial-sized hog operations is a formula for disaster," said Nowlin. "Unfortunately, EPA's plan lacks any sense of urgency in dealing with this chronic problem. North Carolina and other states cannot wait another 5-10 years for adequate reforms to be put in place."

Hog waste pollution does not receive large media coverage in the Piedmont and many Triangle residents simply are unaware or unconcerned with a pollution problem they see as an Eastern NC issue.

Additionally, Farmers for Fairness runs a costly, effective campaign on behalf of the industry with no comparable campaign challenging their assertions.

Nowlin believes that citizens must realize the issue is a statewide problem that affects the waters we all cherish and threatens a $7 billion tourism industry vital to NC's economic health.

The need for awareness is approaching crucial stages. This November's election winners will be in office when the present moratorium expires. Without civic leaders to demand increased regulation of the swine industry, environmental degradation will continue.

  Brent Kendall lives in Carrboro, is an editor with the Prism, and has cut down on his barbecue intake since writing this article.  

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