Note: As climate change brings more intense and more frequent storms, we urge policymakers and corporations to take action to reduce harm from industrial hog operations. Our thoughts are with the people and animals in the path of Hurricane Florence.
Hurricane Florence is set to hit roughly 3,300 open air pig waste lagoons on industrialized hog farms in North Carolina. As this hurricane bears down, we at the Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) are left wondering why so little has been done to mitigate the environmental damage caused by these lagoons.
The pig manure from these farms poses risks to human health and the environment. Hog waste contains nitrogen, phosphorus, antibiotics, pharmaceuticals that were fed to the animals, pathogens including E. coli that may be antibiotic resistant, and heavy metals. In North Carolina, the amount of manure hogs produce far outpaces what is needed for fertilizer on local crop fields, creating a situation that virtually guarantees pollution due to the excess of waste. During a flood, these contaminants pour out and spread, poisoning waterways and wells and putting humans and wildlife at risk.
Since the 1990s, eastern North Carolina has been the center for huge facilities that house thousands of hogs and store tens of thousands of gallons of hog waste. Almost 20 years ago, Hurricane Floyd hit this area, leaving thousands of dead hogs and thousands of gallons of toxic hog waste in its wake. Two years ago, Hurricane Matthew spread devastation there again. What can we expect from Florence?
Whistleblowers have been warning FIC about these toxic lagoons for years and we have worked with them to have their concerns heard and heeded. Most whistleblower farmers report the same problem: farmers simply can’t afford to drain their lagoons, and the companies take no responsibility for the problem. These hog growers, much like their counterparts in the poultry industry, are locked into contracts that leave them in perpetual debt and financial insecurity. Many farmers can barely get by, much less improve their lagoon situations.
As the pork industry grew, reporters and environmentalists started speaking out. In 1996, the Raleigh-based newspaper, The News & Observer, won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service by “exposing how state lawmakers coddled the hog farm industry even as hog waste degraded the environment and assaulted neighbors with an unremitting stench.”
In 1997, the state banned the building of new lagoons but allowed the pre-existing 3,800 lagoons to continue operating. Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999, proving the warnings about potential flooding to be accurate.
Widespread post-storm photos of floating hog bodies, live hogs trapped on barn roofs surrounded by flood water, and broken lagoons draining millions of gallons of hog waste into flood waters got lawmakers’ attention, but their actions proved insufficient.
The state government bought out 42 farms, which put just over 100 lagoons out of use. Funding was inadequate to cover all the farmers that applied for buyouts, and many of those facilities were repaired and brought back into operation. Others were moved to locations less likely to flood. The moratorium on new lagoons was made permanent.
The meat-processing company, Smithfield, which contracted with many of the farms in North Carolina, and the state government reached an agreement that required Smithfield to pay 15 million dollars on research on alternative waste management systems and then phase out lagoon and spray systems on their contracted farms within five years. Yet, the alternatives were all deemed too expensive, and the lagoons remain.
A study completed just before Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016 found that only some of the lagoons most vulnerable to flooding had been removed, and many were still at risk. The impact of Matthew proved less than Floyd, but residents still felt the effects.
Writing from Duplin County, where hogs outnumber people 30-to-1, community activist Elsie Herring observed, “In the 1990s, Hurricanes Fran, Bonnie, and Floyd drowned pigs, flooded industry lagoons, and contaminated our water, but DEQ renewed the permits for swine facilities in the floodplains anyway where they are especially likely to hurt poor black, Latino and Native American residents. That was wrong. Now, Hurricane Matthew has caused the same problems all over again and our voices still aren’t being heard.” Herring and other activists filed a civil rights complaint with the EPA over this issue.
Contract Growers, Corporations, and Courts
Contract growers face an unequal balance of power with the companies who write the contracts. The contract growers — not the corporations — are liable for the lagoons and hog waste. Yet, the farmers are at the mercy of the companies for financial security. Under current terms, farmers can’t afford the outlay for environmental improvements and often are already deep in debt for their barns and equipment.
A recent court ruling may change the situation. Residents affected by the smells and pollution from industrial hog farms sued the contractor, Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield, arguing that the company controlled so many aspects of how the growers raised the pigs and ran their farms, that the company should be held accountable for the resulting waste. The jury agreed to the tune of a 50 million dollar judgment against the company. There are currently more than 20 ongoing lawsuits addressing the same issue.
It’s possible the court cases will lead to a change in the system, but that’s not going to happen before Hurricane Florence hits North Carolina.
Image Credit: Indiana Public Media