Hog hell in North Carolina

Environmentalists and state officials clash over the number of dead pigs, but everyone agrees it's a public health disaster in the making.

Published September 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Eastern North Carolina has been hit with a disaster of biblical proportions in the wake of severe flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd. Coffins have floated out of cemeteries, and more than 3 million chickens and turkeys, plus as many as a half-million hogs, are dead in flooded areas of the state.

Although the flood waters have crested in many places, the crisis is not nearly over: The dead farm animals are rapidly decomposing, creating a threat of widespread illness via contaminated water and insect-borne disease. Already, the state's politically powerful hog farming industry has been under fire by environmentalists for groundwater pollution problems, and the public health threat posed by decomposing hogs and flooded hog-waste sites could be enormous.

In fact, state officials may be minimizing the extent of the problem. The state has estimated that 100,000 hogs are dead, for instance, though a spokesman for Bill Holman, secretary of the North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources, calls that "a very conservative estimate."

The Environmental Defense Fund has estimated that a half-million hogs are dead. "It could
be lower, but more likely higher," said Dan Whittle of the Raleigh EDF office. EDF is worried about massive groundwater contamination due to decomposing farm animals and flooded animal-waste sites.

A reliable source in the state's agricultural community believes that the dead hog total will be at least 200,000 -- twice the official estimate. "All I know is that we've got a shit load of dead hogs and a shit load of live hogs that will soon be dead if we can't get feed in to them," he said. "The crisis is not over, it's ongoing and will be for at least another five days to a week. In some areas the rivers have not crested, yet." According to the source, the Cargill Company is ferrying in feed free of charge to stranded hogs on boats provided by the state forestry service.

Asked about the disparity between his own estimate and other, higher estimates of dead hogs, he answered, "There's no cover-up, if that's what you're trying to say. Everybody's doing their honest best but no one really knows anything and we won't until the waters recede."

Andrea Ashby, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, said, "We only have 10,000 hogs confirmed dead, but the estimate is 100,000; 200,000 is wrong. I don't know where you got that figure."

It's true that no one can be really certain how many hogs have died until the waters recede. But North Carolina is home to 7.5 million hogs, and the vast majority live in the eastern counties hardest hit by the record flooding. So why the insistence by the state Department of Agriculture on the low estimate, qualified as "conservative" even by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which provided the estimate?

Some of it is no doubt due to the economic and political clout wielded by the state's hog farmers. During the 1990s, hog farming surpassed tobacco and poultry farming as North Carolina's largest industry. And there's plenty of politics/hog industry "synergy." Some of the most powerful politicians in the state are also big hog farmers, including former U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth and former state Sen. Wendell Murphy (the world's largest hog farmer, with holdings all over the country). The industry contributes hugely to North Carolina's politicians. Murphy, for instance, is a big campaign contributor to Gov. Jim Hunt and others.

For years those ties helped the pork industry resist attempts at environmental regulation. But a 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning series by Raleigh's News and Observer laid out the connections between pork producers and state politicians, and helped spur more grass-roots demands for reform.

So did environmental problems at hog farms. During the 1990s, spills from open-air hog lagoons -- basically, big open pools filled with hog waste -- have killed fish and contaminated groundwater. In response to pressure by environmentalists, the state imposed a three-year moratorium on hog farm expansion, with the caveat that individual farms could expand only if they implemented new environmentally sound technologies for disposing of hog wastes.

Few did. And now, decomposing hogs and overflowing hog lagoons could threaten the water supply of the eastern part of the state.

But the problems caused by Hurricane Floyd's flooding are bigger than dead hogs and hog waste. "It's not just contamination from the hog and poultry industry," said Don Reuter, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources. "Human waste water facilities have flooded, warehouses storing chemicals have been flooded and are leaking.

"It's a witches brew that's out there in those flood waters. We have so many different sources of contamination. There are 50 or 60 hog lagoon spills that we know of and there are probably more we'll discover once the waters recede and we can get in there."

On Tuesday afternoon, rains from Hurricane Harvey, since downgraded to a tropical storm, dumped more rain on eastern North Carolina. "Right now, things are not looking better," said Reuter.

By Fetzer Mills Jr.

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