Get your crap together NC: the deal with hog poop in NC

The Hurricane Mathew experience brought back some memories of 1999 when floodings from Hurricane Floyd near hog farms led to a widespread environmental and health failure in the state.[1] The question of what to do about industrial quantities of swine poop had gone silent for months, yet, after Matthew and the coincidental release of a new map showing worrisome trends in the distribution and scale of the state’s chicken and hog farms, concerns about hog waste lagoons seem to be back in the political surface.

As in anything political, there are opposing narratives and the media shows inconsistencies between what state regulators announce and what local communities and interest groups report.

In the aftermath of Matthew, the NC Department of Environmental Quality announced that it had not confirmed any reports of breached or overtopped lagoons and state environmental regulators said they were optimistic that hog waste lagoons in NC were intact.[2] However, local news coverages focused on the struggles and challenging experiences that local folk who live on land neighboring hog farms underwent in dealing with the type of lagoon flooding that occurred during Hurricane Matthew.

This is what Elsie Herring in Duplin County, the first largest hog and pig producing county in the US, had to say of her experience “One facility sprays hog manure on a field less than a dozen feet from my front door. My family and I can’t dry our clothes on a clothesline anymore, because they would be covered with manure. We can’t garden or hold cookouts with family and friends, because the smell and particles in the air burn our eyes and make us gag. We can’t fish or swim in the rivers and streams near us because they’re polluted with hog manure, and we can’t drink or wash with water from our shallow wells.” [3]

Obviously, “intact” seems to be an overstatement by the NC DEQ.

In NC, the hog and pig industry has exploded in recent years to surpass tobacco as the state’s top agricultural money-maker.[4] The pork industry accounts for 6 percent of total agricultural sales in the US, and although hog farming takes place in all states across the country, it is heavily concentrated in certain regions. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, North Carolina ranks as the second largest hog farming state and is home to more than 2,100 permitted industrial swine operations which house nearly 9 million animals. [5] The waste generated by these farms is stored in more than 4,100 lagoons that are heavily concentrated in the eastern side of the state. According to the president of Waterkeeper Alliance, together, these lagoons are the equivalent of 15,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.[6]

Environmentalists and social advocacy groups say large-scale animal farms in NC pose a threat of polluted streams and air. They argue that state regulators issued too many permits in the 1990’s and have not been aggressive enough in finding violators.[7] The DEQ denies such allegations.

From an outsider’s point of view, NC environmental regulators seem to be far from negligent in this regard. On the contrary, they seem to be leading the way in the search for environmentally friendly ways of managing waste from industrial agriculture.[8]

Originally, waste from hog farming was allowed to be stored in lagoons and would then be sprayed onto fields that contained crops. But in 2007 NC put a moratorium on the construction of new hog farms,[9] and since 2012, NC is the only state in the country mandating utility companies to generate a portion of their power from swine waste and poultry droppings through a process called anaerobic digestion (AD). But don’t be too quick to applaud the leaders. Although this progressive and socially beneficial initiative looks great in paper, in practice it has been a great disappointment.

Since the establishment of the mandate, NC has never met its goal for converting hog waste into an energy fuel.[10] This should be of no surprise as it turns out that generating electricity out of manure residues from livestock via AD is not exactly a realistic option for private operators.

A recent analysis by the Agricultural Economic Research Institute of the economic performance of anaerobic digestion in biogas plants concluded that adopting and implementing AD is a prohibitly costly investment in the absence of stable subsidy programs.[11]

The broad dilemma of managing industrial and toxic waste is not new to North Carolinians (remember Coal Ash?). What is less known to local folk are the particular circumstances of time and place that dictate how hog waste should disposed and managed.

What to do about the hog waste lagoons? The state already has a moratorium on opening new facilities, but another way in which it could intervene is to start closing down existing lagoons or to start subsidizing AD adopters.

The idea of establishing a government fund to run a subsidy program for adopters of AD and other environmentally friendly technologies that transform hog poop into commercial products like energy, fertilizer or even adhesive is probably socially beneficial, but is it politically palatable?

About 80 percent of hog and pig operations in NC are owned by a single multi-national corporation, Smithfield Foods, of which the Chinese meat processing company, Shuanghui Group, owns an important share.[12] I doubt North Carolinians will feel conformable transferring their tax dollars to a powerful company whose identity hardly reflects or represents interests and views of local folk. However, I think they would be in favor of promoting the adoption of renewable energy technologies and of protecting local communities from potential threats to their environment and their health.

The answer is certainly not simple nor obvious. As with the coal ash debate, the key questions remain the extent to which the government should intervene and through which feasible and fair mechanism. Feasible is a key concept that can be answered with insights from engineering, economics and science. But there is another important aspect to this dilemma, the idea of fairness which is subjective and must therefore be addressed with more than facts.

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New developments on this issue: “EPA faults N.C. over health of minority communities near hog farms” in : http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article127286899.html

REFERENCES

[1] http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/politics-columns-blogs/under-the-dome/article108729152.html

[2] http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/politics-columns-blogs/under-the-dome/article108729152.html

[3] http://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/op-ed/article110702132.html

[4] http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-recent/6271

[5] https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Hog_and_Pig_Farming/

[6] http://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/op-ed/article85331632.html

[7] http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article85169762.html

[8] http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-recent/6257

[9] http://www.ncglobaleconomy.com/hog/overview.shtml

[10] http://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article109742732.html

[11] “Economic analysis of anaerobic digestion—A case of Green power biogas plant in The Netherlands.” Solomie A. Gebrezgabhera,∗, Miranda P.M. Meuwissena, Bram A.M. Prinsb, Alfons G.J.M. Oude Lansinka.

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smithfield_Foods

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