Hog waste threatens North Carolina’s rural poor
In Duplin County, N.C., hogs outnumber humans almost 32 to 1. This part of the state is home to about 530 hog operations—one of the highest concentrations in the world. Here, it’s almost impossible to escape the telltale signs of pig farming: noxious smells, fecal matter and contaminated water. Furthermore, it is also home to a disproportionate amount of black and Hispanic residents compared to the rest of the state and is one of the poorest counties in North Carolina.
A recent study by UNC-Chapel Hill found that black North Carolinians were one and a half times as likely to live within three miles of an industrial hog operation as white residents. American Indians were twice as likely and Hispanic residents were 1.39 times as likely to reside near these facilities. The problem is that economically disadvantaged minority groups don’t have the monetary power to combat the large factory hog farms that are wreaking havoc on their living conditions.
Large industrial farms were introduced into North Carolina in the 1980s. When a series of lagoons overflowed and flooded entire towns with waste in the late 1990s, the public was outraged. However, it wasn’t until a new hog farm was proposed near a wealthy North Carolina golfing village that lawmakers finally placed a ban on the opening of new hog operations, which is still in place today. Until recently, there hasn’t been that much research into the public health impact of these farms. According to an article from the online publication Quartz, “there is little denying that whatever the impact of the hog lagoons, it is poorer rural communities of color that bear the effects the most”.
Hog operations are hard to live near because they produce a huge amount of waste; in 2007, Duplin County hogs generated twice as much waste as the entire city of New York. That’s a lot of fecal matter to live in close proximity to, especially when it is accumulated in huge outdoor lakes and sprayed onto surrounding crops. Aside from the smell, residents have complained of fecal residue on their houses and cars as well as disease and respiratory afflictions.
Here’s what happens to hog waste: when hogs defecate in their indoor stalls, their waste falls through slatted floors and is pumped into a nearby lagoon. Solid waste accumulates in sludge at the bottom of the basin, creating a barrier that helps to prevent seepage into the ground. The liquid from the top of the pond is sprayed onto crops as manure. And unlike human waste, hog waste undergoes no treatment other than exposure to naturally occurring bacteria in the lagoon.
The problem is that semi-permeable fecal layer at the bottom of the lake does not prevent all seepage, especially in eastern North Carolina, where high groundwater tables cause waste to run off into creeks and major streams. A study released last January showed elevated levels of fecal bacteria in waterways near hog operations—and since this waste isn’t treated, it has a higher risk of causing hepatitis, typhoid, dystentery and other health problems. Under the Clean Water Act, only hog farms that discharge directly into streams or other water sources have to apply for a federal permit, so many operations in North Carolina are exempt from this rule. This decreases incentives for hog operations to improve their waste disposal techniques.
It isn’t likely that hog production will decrease any time soon. North Carolina lawmakers have approved legislation that would allow some previously closed hog farms to reopen, although for now the moratorium remains in place. And after the Chinese company WH Group purchased Smithfield farms in 2013, hogs have been exported overseas. Turns out it’s cheaper to export pigs from the United States than it is to produce pork on Chinese soil. This opens up a huge market for North Carolina pork, and poses an even bigger threat for rural North Carolina populations. And more than ever, pig farming is a key aspect of North Carolina’s economy. Thanks to counties like Duplin, we can get pork for as little as $2.50 per pound—but there is a hidden cost to be considered.
Caeleigh MacNeil is a Trinity senior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.