Hog Industry Produces 37
BILLION Gallons Toxic
Waste In N. Carolina
By Erin Hayes
SARATOGA, NC - Don Webb takes us to a tiny creek winding its way through the farm fields here in North Carolina. "This is the second time," he says, "this has had raw feces and urine in it."
Hog feces, that is, runoff from a nearby hog operation. Its hog-waste lagoon is filled to the brim, the legacy of record flooding from Hurricane Floyd. Right now, nearly a thousand hog-waste lagoons are in similar shape, and state regulators are worried some of them could collapse from the pressure, sending millions of gallons of hog waste into state waters.
"A lot of hog lagoons, you,re looking at 5 million gallons," says Dean Hunkle, an inspector with the state's Division of Water Quality.
He points out that hog operators are sending more waste into the lagoons every day, as their operations continue. Worried about the chances for catastrophic failure, the state is allowing hog operators to pump waste out and spray it onto fields and into forests through the winter.
"If it means we have to release some to release pressure on the lagoon," Hunkle says, "we will."
In places, the light-brown waste streams 40 feet into the air and can be seen pooling on top of many sodden fields. State officials concede that could mean a steady stream of hog waste seeping into waters here for months.
Battle of the Hogs
William Holman, who heads North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources, calls it "an awful situation". But he says he feels he is left with no choice.
"My dilemma is it's a steady stream or run the risk of lagoons breaking, full of winter rains," Holman says.
Webb, founder of the Alliance for a Responsible Swine Industry, has little sympathy for the state or for hog operators. A former hog farmer, Webb has been battling the hog industry for years to clean up its act. He has warned repeatedly that hog operations in flood plains were vulnerable to floods and hurricanes.
"These people knew this could happen," Webb says, pointing to yet another lagoon brimming with hog waste. "We told them they shouldn,t ever build in the wetlands and flood plains. We knew it. They knew it. But it was cheap land. It was a cheap way to do anything, without any regard for the safety of the people that were already living in the wetlands."
Move the Hogs?
Asked what the hog industry should do, considering the fact that lagoons are at unsafe levels, Webb pushes the concept that a number of state environmental groups have proposed. "Move the hogs out. If they think the cesspool's going to burst, get rid of the hogs. Stop putting waste in that cesspool."
But the industry claims it is an impractical idea, logistically and economically. Instead, the industry has its own proposal, which it has already sent to Congress.
Draft legislation submitted by the North Carolina Pork Council would give the hog industry an exemption from the federal Clean Water Act " for up to a year".
It also proposes making $1 billion in aide available to hog producers and other farmers to allow them to rebuild their operations in the flood plain.
Beth Anne Mumford, spokeswoman for the pork council, defends the legislation.
"It's no different from anybody else who has gotten flooded out," Mumford says. "You know, we wanted our producers to be able to recover and have the opportunity to recover and rebuild just like everybody else in the state who has experienced this horrible catastrophe."
As for the billion dollars the industry requested, "You've got to ask for what you think, what you think might be needed to get people back up and running again."
Powerful Lobby
But many are unsympathetic. The hog industry is one of North Carolina's most powerful. It sent one of its own to the state legislature. It spent millions lobbying for regulations easing environmental restrictions, allowing hog operators to set up in flood zones.
Derb Carter, of the Southern Environmental Law Center, says he believes there is no justification for using federal money to repair hog operations in the flood plain.
"In many ways they have made their own bed and they should be required to sleep in it, as we see it," Carter says. "This is an industry that lobbied for these lax regulations. And the use of public money to bail them out of a situation that they created is entirely inappropriate."
In fact, Carter takes exception to the characterization of hog operators as "farmers".
"Five out of six of the hogs are owned by corporations that control them either on company farms or by contracts with growers."
And the industry hopes to keep growing hogs right where they've been growing them, if they can get their legislation passed. State regulators, however, are opposed and are furious that the pork council went to Congress.
Instead, the state is trying to work with federal officials to come up with a limited offer for hog operators: payment to move them out of the flood plains. So far, the industry is still lobbying to stay.
Will they win? North Carolina's congressional delegation has been piecing together Flood Relief legislation, which will include money and assistance for agriculture.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an ally to the hog industry, is expected to take it to the Senate. The details, his staff says, are still being worked out and for now are not being made public.
Webb says he believes public sentiment has turned against the industry, and he says he thinks lawmakers will get an earful if they bail out hog operators.
"Don,t make the hardworking taxpayer of the United States pay for the mistakes that the corporate hog people have made," Webb says. "They brought this on themselves. They should pay for it. Not us."