After the flood

Hog farmers slug it out with environmentalists as North Carolina toughens regulations.

Published October 26, 1999 12:00PM (EDT)

North Carolina environmentalists and hog farmers are at war with each other in the wake of the disastrous flooding caused by rains from Hurricanes Dennis, Floyd and Irene.

Environmentalists are charging that plans to allow farmers to get rid of flooded hog wastes by essentially spreading the toxic overflow more widely will threaten the state's drinking water supplies. The state's Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is trying to referee the slugfest between the two sides.

"We met with representatives of the environmental and hog farming communities and tried to craft a policy that struck a balance that will protect the environment and allow the hog operators to continue farming, " says DENR spokesman Don Reuter. "Now, we're catching heat from both sides."

In eastern North Carolina hogs out number people by a nearly 5 to 1 margin. There are, or were before the floods, more than 9 million hogs and 2 million people. The floods were disastrous not only because of the unprecedented extent of the floodwaters, but because the waters were contaminated by pollutants, including human wastes, petrochemicals, pesticides, fertilizer and, most extensively, hog wastes, which are stored in open-air storage pits called lagoons.

The environmental community is concerned that under DENR's plan, hog operations with overloaded lagoons will be allowed to draw down lagoon levels by spraying the overload onto already saturated fields, causing the waste to run off into surface waters and seep into groundwater, causing more contamination of drinking water.

Hog farmers, meanwhile, are displeased with the state's plan because it will not allow farms that have been unable to manage their hog wastes to restock, once their current stock is shipped to market. They are also unhappy because hog lagoons that are more than half destroyed will not be allowed to rebuild in the flood plain.

For years the swine industry has been allowed to operate virtually unregulated in North Carolina. The few ordinances that applied to the field were frequently toothless because the agencies charged with enforcing those laws were denied sufficient funding by the legislature. But the extensive post-flood damage has strengthened the hand of those pushing to regulate the industry.

Even Gov. James Hunt has warmed to increased restrictions on hog farming, as well as on the rampant development that made the floods such a human and natural disaster.

The DENR's emergency waste management plan insists that hog farmers may only spray the wastes from overfull lagoons on fields and forested areas with sufficient plant growth to absorb the nitrates in hog waste. Nitrates can contaminate groundwater and also cause algae blooms in estuaries.

"The short-sighted emergency plan allows hog waste to be applied to lands that are already saturated or that otherwise cannot absorb significant amounts of animal waste," says Dan Whittle, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). "The plan will cause significant additional damage to our surface waters and groundwater, including drinking water supplies."

Neuse Riverkeeper Rick Dove said that he saw hog farmers spraying wastes onto already saturated barren fields, openly flaunting their disdain for the emergency waste management plan. The sprayed wastes run off into surface waters or seep into the groundwater. Once nitrates have entered the groundwater it can take up to two decades for the water to rid itself of the contamination according to Leon Chesnin, professor emeritus of waste management and utilization at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Nitrate pollution is particularly problematic for residents of rural eastern North Carolina, many of who get their drinking water from wells. Nitrates cause a condition called blue baby syndrome in babies and young children, in which nitrates deplete the blood's oxygen supply causing children to slowly suffocate.

Adding some confusion to the problem is that the state is advising residents whose well water hasn't been cleared as safe to boil their water before drinking. Debbie Crane, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said that boiling water actually increases the concentration of nitrates. She warns pregnant women and young children in eastern North Carolina whose water supplies come from wells to only drink bottled water.

Another public health problem posed by the swine industry is the large number of hogs drowned in the floods. No one will probably ever know how many hogs died. Estimates now range from a high of 600,000 to a low of 21,000 -- the official number provided by the state veterinarian's office, a division of the state's Department of Agriculture. But the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the USDA gives out a figure of more than 500,000 dead.

Doug Rader, a biologist with the EDF, said it's been standard industry practice to bury hog carcasses in shallow pits and ditches. The state ordinance governing disposal of hog carcasses states only that carcasses should be "buried in the earth to a depth of at least two feet within 12 hours after the death of the animal," but those who break the law are only guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor, "and shall be fined not less than $5 nor more than $10," according to the law.

One source, who asked to remain anonymous, said he'd heard of hog farmers denying state inspectors access to their properties. A woman in Duplin County who'd been escorting a reporter on a tour of the flood damage refused to visit any swine operations, stating, "I'm scared of the hog farmers."

Mark Sobsey, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of North Carolina's School of Public Health, said there is a serious potential for disease from improperly buried hog carcasses. The carcasses contain microorganisms that can cause botulism, cholera, cryptosporidium and other serious gastrointestinal diseases.

By Fetzer Mills Jr.

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