Feces Fiasco in North Carolina

IT CAME THROUGH THE WOODS...

by Pamela Teisler-Rice


The VivaVine: Volume #4, No. 4; Sept./Oct., 1995

The worst hog-waste spill in North Carolina's history, in June of this year, sent 25 million gallons of soupy red hog manure gushing onto the state's roads, tobacco and soybean fields, and into the New River. A dike surrounding an eight-acre receptacle for hog waste at Oceanview Farms in Onslow County collapsed after a large rainfall, threatening fish life in the river as well as crops and area ground water.

According to a June 25th New York Times story which covered the spill, Celie Weston, a nearby farmer to the disgusting mess, described the scene: "It came through the woods. You could see the dark stuff. It made me sick. I thought 'Oh, there goes our crops.'" Such an event is beyond the wildest nightmares of most city people. But to the rural people of North Carolina this was something as inevitable as next year's harvest. A little secret in North Carolina is that hog manure spills, albeit only in the thousands of gallons, happen all the time. A catastrophe of this size -- millions of gallons -- was just waiting to happen. It was only 4 months before this record spill that an extensive week-long expose appeared in The News & Observer, a newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina. (See information below on how to obtain the entire series.) Entitled "Boss Hog: North Carolina's Pork Revolution," the expose probed every aspect of what has indeed become a "revolution" in agricultural practices in the state's pork industry.

North Carolina, has become in just a very short time the second largest hog producing state in the union just after Iowa. And according to the N & O expose, the boom in hogs came on a silver platter, at the behest of a certain former state legislator named Wendell H. Murphy, who even at the time of his legislative tenure, controlled large holdings in the pork industry. Laws which he pushed through in North Carolina have been worth millions to him as well as other hog magnates in the state. It is not surprising that today his Murphy Farms is the largest producer of hogs in the country.

Few North Carolinians during Murphy's stint as state senator challenged him on the obvious conflict of interest which existed at the time -- ethics in government laws are not North Carolina's strong point. Many residents of North Carolina, no doubt, in fact welcomed the laws that favored the hog industry. Many young farmers saw a great potential in the system of contract growing which, it happens, Wendell Murphy was ushering into the hog business at the time. Contract growing was looking like a lucrative answer to the downsizing in agriculture in general. In addition to tax subsidies for hog producers in the state, the laws brought in very weak environmental regulations on hog farming. The state very quickly became extremely inviting for producers to set up shop in North Carolina.

But soon it was learned that Mother Nature has her limits. And before the citizens of North Carolina had time to consider the full ramifications of the pro-pork laws that were quickly and quietly being passed, they found that they had little or no control over a powerful and dangerous trend toward a number of serious problems which massive intensive hog production brings.

Staff writers Joby Warrick and Pat Smith from The News & Observer put it best in the introduction to just one of many articles which were part of the paper's expose in February:

"Imagine a city as big as New York suddenly grafted onto North Carolina's Coastal Plain. Double it. Now imagine that this city has no sewage treatment plants. All the waste from 15 million inhabitants are simply flushed into open pits and sprayed onto fields. Turn those humans into hogs, and you don't have to imagine at all. It's already here."
The critical word here is "suddenly." The staff writers described the phenomenon of 7 million animals living in metal confinement barns, producing "two to four times as much waste, per hog, as the average human," as growing up "practically overnight" in their state. [See two related storis, this issue: PORCINE PALAZZIO and FROSTBITE IN TRANSIT.]

And for every farm of about 10,000 hogs there is, what the locals call, a "lagoon." At first, something described as such may sound like a scene from a dream fantasy. But no, these "lagoons" might better be described as cesspools of hog shit (excuse my expression...) --massive earthen pits for vast amounts of animal excrement. The odor alone from these pits has raised citizen rancor to a fever pitch.

As for a clear cut figure on how many lagoons there are in North Carolina, no one really knows. Permits to have one aren't required in the state.

Researchers call manure waste "nutrient pollution." Hog manure is generally a great fertilizer for crops. But in such massive quantities, like a saturated sponge, the land simply cannot safely absorb it all.

According to North Carolina's pork industry, the lagoons are the solution to keeping harmful chemicals and bacteria from 9.5 million tons of manure, produced there annually, out of the water supplies. The N & O expose, however, begged to differ with this assumption of safety given by the local hog barons. The N & O expose revealed new scientific studies showing that nitrogen and phosphorous as well as other substances from the hog lagoons have indeed gotten into the groundwater, citing one North Carolina State University study which estimated that as many as half of the existing lagoons in the state were leaking, badly enough to allow contaminants to get into the groundwater.

In theory the heavier sludge sinks to the bottom of a lagoon and mixes with the lining there to form an impenetrable seal. According to the N & O expose, research has revealed that the nature of the lining seems to have an important bearing on the completeness of the seal. If coarse gravel lies at the bottom, a seal will hardly occur at all. And even where the sand is fine, leakage is still likely to occur eventually. Just one area of course gravel at the bottom, the N & O expose pointed out, could act like a bucket with a hole in it. Researchers have found that the only truly sealed lagoons are those lined with clay or a synthetic liner. No law in North Carolina, however, requires such liners, and few lagoons in the state have them.

The problem with contaminants in groundwater is that once they get that far there is no mechanical method of retrieval. Only nature taking its own sweet time can make the water pure again -- a twenty year wait in the case of manure contamination. And then, nature's cleanup can only begin after the source of contamination has been fully stopped for an uninterrupted period of 20 years -- the time it takes for contaminants to trickle down in the first place.

The prospect for serious water contamination becomes even more terrifying when one of the contaminants from manure pollution, nitrate-nitrogen, causes blue baby syndrome -- the inability of an infant's blood to absorb oxygen.

In addition to groundwater contamination, the N & O expose told of scientific studies revealing that large amounts of ammonia are being emitted from the lagoons into the air, which return to the earth with rain. The ammonia is believed to be the reason for an explosion in algae growth which is choking many of the state's rivers and estuaries. Just 1400 full grown hogs produce a ton of airborne ammonia per year.

Although the pork industry says that no one is working harder than it does on the problems of pollution, the industry has grown so fast that no entity may really be able to understand the problems well enough, or fast enough, to forestall serious contamination to the state's water.

And though hard to believe, the hog industry in North Carolina is expected to just about double in the next several years. Estimates of 16 million hogs a year by 1997 have been projected. Again, the hog waste this correlates to in human waste is equivalent to that of the population of at least 4 New York City's.

Hardcopy reprints for the entire "Boss Hog" series are available at $5 per copy by mail. Send a self-addressed mailing label with your request to New Media/Boss Hog, P.O. Box 191, Raleigh, N.C. 27602. Checks should be payable to New Media. For multiple copy orders, call 919-829-8918.

Better yet, see the stories yourself: HOG BOSS for the entire series. But PLEASE make a bookmark for The VivaVegie Society. And come right on back...

(Ed. note: this story is the best argument I've found as yet for having access to the Internet.)

Hear David Briers' [McLibel Campaign] comments in the Grapevine section of this issue.

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