Exponential increases in demand for pork products worldwide has resulted in the construction of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and waste lagoons as means of industrializing production. A closer look at hog production of this kind in eastern North Carolina, USA, reveals that while profits are spiraling upward, the burdens of extreme environmental damage and health hazards are shouldered disproportionately by minority communities and the rural poor. Leaders of the Environmental Justice movement struggle to defend their communities and capture the attention of the general public.
Heaps of Hogs
People love pigs, and pigs create waste. An increase in global demand for pork products has driven a trend of concentration and industrialization in hog production worldwide, creating pockets of densely packed pig farms. Meanwhile, one hog can produce as much as four to eight times the feces as a human being. The combination of these factors leads to an environmental and human health crisis that now plagues many rural communities.
This is the story of the eastern coastal plain region of the state of North Carolina in the USA, which has become a hog-production haven. At 9-10 million strong, the population of the pig herd here outnumbers residents; the flat, sandy landscape is speckled with ‘lagoons’, which are literally pools of hog waste the size of football fields. These lagoons have become emblems of the painful decades-long fight for local residents, primarily African Americans and rural poor, to defend their communities from crippling air and water pollution.
As in much of the world today, hogs here are now raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). According to John Ikerd, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri, the transition from traditional independent hog farms to industrial CAFOs can be summarized in three points:
First, farmers today specialize in only one phase of production rather than the whole process. For example, a farm may focus on breeding, or raising the piglets up to a moderate weight (40 lbs in the U.S.), or ‘finishing’ which is when the animals are fattened to prepare for slaughter. Secondly, the industry is dominated now by ‘contract agriculture’ – a model of production where a large corporation forms contracts with individual farmers to complete their single step in the production process according to exact standards. In this model, the company owns the animals, not the farmer, and provides the exact type of feed and inputs (such as antibiotics or hormones), and also determines what housing conditions the animals should have. The farmers themselves do not have much control over the standards of operation on their farm if they wish to keep their contract. The third major change is that independent farmers, largely as a result of consolidation in the industry, have almost disappeared as they have been forced out of business or bought out.
In the case of North Carolina, almost all the hogs produced here become part of the brand name Smithfield Foods. Up until 2013, Smithfield Foods was independently the largest hog producer and processor in the world. Last September, U.S. regulators allowed China’s Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. to purchase Smithfield in the largest Chinese purchase of a U.S. firm in history. This tremendous financial transaction has shifted managerial focus of the business practices even farther away from the daily operations on the ground in eastern North Carolina.
The CAFOs here house hogs in tightly packed conditions, numbering in the thousands. Average facilities in North Carolina have as many as 80,000 hogs. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office in 2008, this size facility can create 1.5 times the volume of waste as the City of Philadelphia. All this waste has to go somewhere. The cheapest and most popular form of waste management is the lagoon, which is a low-tech pool located right next to the hog houses where the waste is flushed. From these pools the waste is dispersed – using sprayers – over fields. In some areas (such as the mid-west of the U.S.) this sprayed waste is used as a fertilizer for crops. In North Carolina, the tendency is to spray waste on unused fields, usually containing Bermuda grass or left fallow. In other words, the waste is literally waste – and has not been reclaimed for a secondary purpose.
Lagoons produce a wide range of negative impacts on the environment in eastern North Carolina. Industry representatives maintain that when applied at recommended rates, spraying is safe. However, a 1995 study found that even at recommended rates, spraying can lead to excessive phosphorus, heavy metal and nitrogen build-up in soils and surface water. This study demonstrated the impacts on local water systems of ‘safe’ spraying levels, including algal blooms and fish kills.
The logic behind the development of the lagoon was that various particulates, microbial ‘gums’ and sludge in the waste itself would cause a clogging of pores where the waste met the soil, and form a self-sealing barrier, preventing seepage or contamination of groundwater. However, soils in eastern North Carolina are sandy and the water table is high, a situation that easily lends itself to groundwater contamination. Concerns over lagoon seepage led the General Assembly of North Carolina to fund a broad survey of existing hog lagoons in the state in 1993, which found that 79% of those lagoons tested had ‘moderate’ to ‘very high’ contamination leaks, resulting in ecological damage, as well as groundwater containing nitrate levels that did not meet EPA standards for drinking water.
Eastern North Carolina is an area of rural communities where many residents traditionally have used shallow wells as their source of drinking water. The contamination from lagoons therefore poses a serious problem. As activist and resident Gary Grant points out, “this is especially bad for the poor, because people end up having to buy bottled water, or go to the laundry mat instead of being able to wash their clothes at home”.
But the most dangerous problem is the level of toxicity of the contents of these lagoons that are leaking. These are not simply manure piles – the concentration of waste materials is so intense that these pits are in fact deadly. There are many documented incidents in the U.S. of workers dying from being overcome by fumes of the lagoons or falling in. In one dramatic incident in Michigan, a worker became overcome by fumes, his 15-year-old cousin tried to save him and was also overcome, and three more family members jumped in to try to save them – but all met the same fate, and died in the lagoon.
Because of the fecal contents and production methods in the hog houses, lagoons contain pathogens such as Salmonella and E. Coli, but also high levels of pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, hormones, antimicrobial agents, insecticides, heavy metals, high concentrations of ammonia and phosphorus, and other compounds threatening to the regional watersheds and human health.
When these toxins leak into a water body, such as one of the many regional rivers or streams, the waste consumes the oxygen, kills animals and vegetation, and replaces natural wildlife populations with algae and noxious black mud.
In one of the largest spills in the past decade, an 8-acre hog lagoon ruptured and released 25.8 million gallons of waste into the New River. To put this in perspective – that ranks as the largest environmental spill in the U.S., twice as big in volume as the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill. The waste could not be extracted from the river and over the course of two months it made its way down river until it reached the ocean, killing over four million fish and other marine creatures in its path. According to local reports, the waste was so toxic it would burn your skin if you touched it.
Farmers are technically not allowed to spray excess waste out of the lagoons during storms, because of the increased threat to groundwater from run-off. However, this places farmers in a catch-22 situation as during rain storms lagoon levels rise dangerously. Steve Wing, Professor of Epidemiology and researcher at the University of Chapel Hill North Carolina, has extensively studied the impacts of hog lagoon pollution on rural communities.
“Community members report over-spraying,” he says, “What happens? Nothing. The growers are required to spray to maintain freeboard even when the fields are already saturated.”
To make matters worse, eastern North Carolina is located in what is known as ‘hurricane alley’. Tropical storms of all sizes hit this area every year, leading to regular flooding events. One of the most significant events occurred in 1999 when Hurricane Dennis hit the coast twice, bringing heavy rains and damaging winds, followed immediately by Hurricane Floyd which added another 20 inches of rain in a short period of time. The result was a flood that completely submerged hundreds of lagoons across the floodplain, mixing their toxic contents into the surging floodwaters. Many of the hog houses themselves were also submerged, which resulted in tens of thousands of drowned hogs – hundreds of which remained floating and washed up across the region. Beaches that the floodwaters reached were reportedly covered in a slime of hog waste.
Despite the degradation to the coast and waterways, the lagoons were patched-up and refilled, and business as usual continues in eastern North Carolina, with thousands upon thousands of gallons of hog waste piling up.
Amidst the strips of lagoons, hog houses, and one of the world’s densest pig populations, eastern North Carolina is also home to the state’s historic African American communities. “They call this the Black Belt,” explains Gary Grant, life-long activist and resident of Halifax County. The 23 counties that constitute the Black Belt were historically home to major slave plantations. After emancipation, freed slaves continued to work as sharecroppers and developed long-standing and deep-rooted communities, and a unique southern culture.
Gary Grant’s name is well known in this area. He is a progressive community activist who has become a leader in defense of his community and others in this region. He is now the executive director of the internationally acclaimed Concerned Citizens of Tillery (CCT) organization, a small but mighty group has fought to defend their homes and farmlands from environmental injustice.
CCT has become a role model in the region because, despite their cultural endurance, these communities have faced continuous discrimination and racism. One such injustice Grant cites is the disproportionate placement of hog CAFOs and their hazards in or near African American communities.
“It’s the area that the hog industry has invaded, and I do say invaded,” says Grant. “The cultural events and growth of these communities have been severely impacted by the CAFOs.”
Whether or not these sites were intentionally placed here has been a subject of much debate. Some studies indicate that the industry is simply following the ‘path of less political resistance’, meaning planning their construction for areas where residents are unlikely to object, do not have the political clout to fight the location of environmental hazards, and where land is cheap. Bob Edwards, Professor of Sociology at East Carolina University, undertook a study in 2000 to investigate this further. His work confirmed that, while the profitability of hog farming in North Carolina surged for the international stakeholders of the hog production companies, the politically marginalized and poor residents shoulder the bulk of the costs in terms of loss of land value, loss of quality of life, health risks and other burdens.
A social movement known as environmental justice was born out of this struggle in the 1980s, right here in North Carolina. Combining environmentalism and civil rights issues, and now reaching minority communities around the world, the movement started in Warren County when a community of African Americans fought to prevent 120 million pounds of toxic PBC waste from being dumped in their neighborhood.
The state government had selected their backyards as a site for a landfill for the toxic waste without the participation or consultation of the community. Residents lay down on the road in front of the waste trucks, and attempted to file a lawsuit against the state. Though they lost the battle and the waste site was in fact established, the coverage of Warren County citizens brought Environmental Justice to the attention of the nation and spread the movement to other issues, including CAFOs.
“Environmental Justice means every person has clean water, clean air, clean land to live on and no communities are targeted by the industry because they are less than others,” says Grant.
Steve Wing, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, has conducted several studies on air pollution and the quality of life impacts experienced by residents in eastern North Carolina as a result of CAFO placement. His studies highlight physical health impacts, including sore throat, respiratory difficulty, eye irritation and nausea, as well as mental health impacts such as anxiety, nervousness, and feeling stressed and annoyed.
For one study, Wing and colleagues took a trailer of air-quality monitoring equipment to different communities located near CAFOs and measured hydrogen sulfide in the air. They asked community members to participate by sitting on their porches twice a day to fill in questionnaires about odors, mental health impacts and blood pressure. The results of the study indicated that hydrogen sulfide levels were strongly correlated with odor, and also with physical and mental difficulties.
As a result of these experiences, residents in this area tend to avoid the outdoors. This means leaving windows closed, avoiding sitting or eating outside. Grant explains, “I was driving from Rocky Mount the other day and saw a family with a house next to a CAFO outside about to have a cookout. I saw them taking everything back in, and when I got closer I was overcome by the odor”.
Wing’s participants cited similar problems, and also explained that they must keep their houses sealed tightly, that their clothes and hair hold the smell permanently, and cite examples of being overwhelmed by the odor occasionally when going outdoors – to walk to their car or check their mail. “If anyone wants to live near the stench, if anyone thinks ‘it’s just odor’, tell them to come live in eastern North Carolina,” says Grant.
Smithfield Pork employs 5,000 people in its Tarheel processing plant, where a grand total of 36,000 hogs are slaughtered each day. […] The jobs are dangerous and low-paid.
The impacts of living in hog country stretch beyond the household. As the number of hogs has increased, the number of farmers in North Carolina has dramatically decreased. Vertical integration and increasing farm size has pushed out small farmers, leaving many jobless in an area with relatively few options for employment. Smithfield Pork employs 5,000 people in its Tarheel processing plant, where a grand total of 36,000 hogs are slaughtered each day. This is a fast moving, sharp and loud working environment. The jobs are dangerous and low-paid. The internationally recognized organization Human Rights Watch has twice issued reports against Smithfield for abuse of workers, and a variety of violations are well documented in public records including unjust terminations, racial epithets, intimidation, assault and spying on workers.
Workers were prevented twice by Smithfield from holding elections for union representation, and in 2007 the company filed suit against the United Food and Commercial Workers union in what some say was an attempt to prevent eventual unionization of their employees. The parties settled in 2009. Activists and community leaders like Grant have worked with non-profits to fight back against environmental in-justice, but with limited results.
“Environmental Justice in North Carolina is being slapped in the face by the current legislature,” Grant says. “Many people in Europe and the rest of the world think that racism and prejudice is done with here, but it’s still here, it just takes on different forms.”
Politics and Pigs
At this point, one may wonder why a state government would boast to be the friendliest state toward industry in the face of extreme concentrations of hogs, waste, and the associated externalities developing in their own backyard. The shortest answer is: financial profit.
Industrial hog farming really began in North Carolina in 1970 when Wendell Murphy, a wealthy hog farm owner in his own right, was elected to the House of Representatives in North Carolina. He worked to pass a series of laws that eliminated sales taxes on hog farming equipment, and made it more difficult for local authorities in communities to use ‘zoning’ regulations to deal with odor and pollution from hog operations.
This opened up the vast coastal plain of North Carolina to the hog industry. Lagoons, being the cheapest form of waste management, were implemented along with the explosion of hog houses across the state. In the 1990s, North Carolina’s hog industry became the second largest in the country, growing from 3.7 million to over 10 million in just six years, while the number of farms dropped from over 11,400 in 1982 to about 2,200 in 2011.
“The 10 highest density hog production counties in the nation are in eastern North Carolina. Out of those, three also have the highest turkey production density in the country. The situation is getting worse in terms of CAFOs and animal waste in this region.” – Steve Wing
In 1997, North Carolina state legislature put in place a two-year moratorium on the construction of new lagoons, hog houses, or facilities with over 250 pigs called the ‘Clean Water Responsibility Act’, which did nothing to improve the situation with the existing lagoons on the 2,200 farms already in place. In 1999, following the devastation of Hurricane Floyd, the Smithfield Agreement was forged, which required the company to invest in research into Environmentally Superior Technologies (ESTs) for waste management, and required that Smithfield install these ESTs once developed on any company-owned farms.
This agreement was on the surface a good step, but in reality had little to no effect on the CAFOs for two reasons. First, the agreement maintained that to be installed, the EST must also be technically, operationally and economically feasible. While reasonable in and of itself, the agreement continues to define economic feasibility of a new technology as a comparison on a 10-year basis of the EST costs as compared to the costs of operating a lagoon. As has been demonstrated, lagoons have a large number of external impacts and costs, but lagoons are incredibly low-tech, require little equipment and are cheap to install, thus this definition set up a predicament for the adoption of ESTs. The cheapest EST to date (called the Super Soils system) adds $7.13 per finished pig to the costs of production over the lagoon system.
Secondly, the agreement only required the installation take place on ‘company-owned’ farms. In fact, Smithfield owns very few farms but uses the contract agriculture model for the massive majority of its production. The result of these factors is that out of roughly 2,500 hog farms in North Carolina, only 11 to date have applied for an upgrade to an EST. In surveys with farmers in 2011, Duke University student Ashlyn Karan found that most hog farmers felt the lagoons were their only option, and were poorly informed of the dangers and environmental damage they posed. Their concerns about ESTs were mostly over initial investment and operational costs, and almost none of the farmers polled felt they had a reason to transition to the more expensive system.
In addition to a lack of incentives to transition, some of the limitations put in place on lagoons have also eroded. Grant cites the moratorium that he and fellow activists fought to put in place in the 1990s as an example. Under new rules put out in 2010, if a lagoon breaks down, as long as it is rebuilt within 150 feet of the old one the new EST standards do not have to apply. “The life of a lagoon is 20 to 25 years,” notes Grant. “This means we can’t get rid of them.”
Looking to the Future
Industry reports available online highlight the sustainability of their operations and the weight of their EST investments. Smithfield’s website points to their overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, water use and normalized waste. But if you ask Steve Wing about the changes, “it is exactly the same as it used to be,” he says.
“The people most affected don’t have the political clout, and state and federal agencies that are supposed to regulate this are in the pocket of the industry.”
Wing points to recent evidence of large donations to campaign funds, and to a recent proposal in the North Carolina Senate to make aerial photos of hog farms and GPS data about their locations off-limits to the general public as examples. “There is no political will to improve,” Wing claims.
Some efforts have been made recently to find creative solutions. Duke University has partnered with Google to convert Lloyd-Ray Farms into an experimental energy-generating hog farm. They have developed a system to capture methane by covering the hog lagoon, generating burnable gas.
While this is a creative idea, provide the whole solution. Karan’s interviews with the owner of Lloyd-Ray Farms make a significant point. The farmer was only partially aware of the functioning of the technology being piloted on his farm, and said that he was only willing to participate because Duke assured him the costs would be covered. This points to a serious need for education and awareness raising amongst the hog farmers and the rural community members themselves about alternatives to lagoons and their potential values.
Others have raised concerns about the outcome of implementing a methane-gas system on top of the lagoon system. “It puts in place an incentive for Duke University and others in the bio-gas world to keep the lagoon system in place,” Wing notes. The social impacts of the lagoon system may then be even harder to address.
Wing believes that sustainability for North Carolina means transitioning to a lower density, less environmentally damaging system, which he calls ‘rural autonomy’. In this system, “farmers own their land, they own their animals and their inputs, they own their livelihoods and they have the power to have safe and liveable communities”.
This idea of autonomy, which is echoed by farmer advocacy groups across the south, is more than just a social justice issue: it is at the heart of the principles of the Environmental Justice movement and is possibly the keystone to the environmental solution for eastern North Carolina.
“Rural autonomy means people who live in places that are currently polluted would have a say to protect their families and communities,” Wing says.
Their ability to do so would result in regulations and practices that limit pollution, protect the environment, the people and the pigs.
Writer: Sally Lee is a student of rural development at the University of Humboldt.
This article featured in Issue #12 (Summer 2014) of Revolve Magazine on pages 10-17.