The state's hog waste management works by funneling feces, urine, and blood from hog farms into massive open waste lagoons, which let off foul odors and methane gas. When the lagoons become full, the waste water is often sprayed onto fields as nutrients for crops. The waste, which contains harmful bacteria like E. coli or salmonella, can wash off into local waterways and cause groundwater contamination and fish kills.
Hurricanes hasten this pollution. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd swept through the region, causing significant damage to swine operations and flooding waste lagoons.
In 2018, Hurricane Florence hit, leading to damage or flooding in at least 110 lagoons and putting the problem of hog waste on full display once again.
"There is nothing outdated about the lagoon and sprayfield system," said CEO of the North Carolina Pork Producers Council, Roy Lee Lindsey in a statement to EHN. "It remains the most sustainable manner for us to manage our farms."
But the state, environmental advocates, and community members disagree. And Will Hendrick, environmental justice advocate for the North Carolina Conservation Network and staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance's Pure Farms program, told EHN the industry has not made "meaningful changes" in response to increasingly frequent and severe storms.
Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a higher than average hurricane season for North Carolina in 2021. On the Atlantic coast the agency estimates 16 to 20 major named storms, seven to 10 hurricanes, and three to five major hurricanes.
As climate change threatens to create more intense storms in the years to come, and with concerns over the location of hog farms in flood prone parts of the state coupled with lax regulatory oversight, how is the hog industry preparing for these increasingly devastating events?
Hog farms in North Carolina’s 100-year flood plain
In 2018, Hurricane Florence hit, leading to damage or flooding in at least 110 lagoons. (Credit: Waterkeeper Alliance Inc./flickr)
Compared to other states in the southeast U.S., North Carolina's concentration of industrial animal agriculture in the coastal plain makes it uniquely vulnerable to storms. The region is number one for poultry farms and number two for swine in the U.S., and the majority of these farms are located in the southeast part of the state. There are roughly 2,400 hog farms in the state, many of which are family operations that work for corporate giants like Smithfield or Tyson Foods.
"This industry has concentrated in the most vulnerable part of North Carolina [for] these increasingly frequent and severe storms," Hendrick said.
The NC Pork Producers Council acknowledged this problem.
"Over the past two decades we've partnered with the State of North Carolina and closed lagoons located in 100-year flood plains," Lindsey said. Lindsey is referring to the voluntary North Carolina Floodplain Buyout Program, which has led to the permanent closure of 43 hog farms and around 103 waste lagoons from 2000 after Hurricane Floyd to summer 2020.
More North Carolina hog farmers would participate in the buyout program if there was more funding, Lindsey added. "This is a place where our industry and our critics could work together to secure additional funding and continue our efforts to reduce operations in 100-year flood plains."
In 2018, in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, Governor Roy Cooper included in his recovery recommendations funding for "either buyout industrial animal operations in the 500-year flood plain or to help them convert to better technology." From that recommendation, the legislature committed $5 million to expand the Floodplain Buyout Program. Data on these additional buyouts is not yet available.
But Hendrick said that funding for these buyout programs relies on taxpayers dollars, raising the question of whether North Carolinians should have to foot the bill for corporate mismanagement.
An area of Kinston, N.C., floods on Sept. 14, 2018. (Credit: The National Guard)
Communications director for the NC Pork Council Jen Kendrick told EHN that the hog industry has been "very proactive in what [it does] to prepare for hurricanes ever since Hurricane Floyd in 1999," providing an article, written by the Pork Council, outlining how the media and environmental nonprofits blew the impacts of Hurricane Florence on hog lagoon flooding out of proportion. The report said 98 percent of hog lagoons "performed as intended" during the 2018 hurricane and that state agency reports confirmed that hog farms were not a lasting source of environmental damage. Neither Kendrick, Lindsey, nor the article elaborated on what "performed as intended" means.
Hendrick said the report focuses on impacts to lagoons and overlooks "the significant pollution resulting from the runoff of their land applied waste." In North Carolina, Hurricane Floyd, Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and Hurricane Florence led to the failure of hundreds of waste lagoons, resulting in the contamination of waterways such as the South River and tributaries of the Cape Fear, Neuse and Tar rivers. This is not inclusive of runoff of waste from sprayfields, which can occur anytime there is a heavy rain.
According to a 2016 analysis by the Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance, of the roughly 4,000 hog farms in the state, about 306 are located within the 100-year flood plain or within a half mile of a public well, the majority concentrated around predominantly Black and low-income communities in Duplin and Sampson County.
Hendrick pointed out that in an attempt to mitigate waste runoff, in 2019 the NC Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) edited the swine waste management system general permit to increase the amount of time from four hours to 12 hours after a National Weather Service storm warning that a farmer is required to stop any spraying of waste onto fields.
"We see consistently, the farm operators are concerned about the accumulation of rainwater in their lagoons, so they begin land applying as furiously and fast as they can in advance of a storm," Hendrick said. "It's making it even more likely that the waste that they just land-applied is going to end up in our rivers, lakes, and streams."
In 2018, EHN witnessed seven hog operations illegally spraying waste onto fields prior to Florence's landfall.
EHN reached out to Smithfield Foods, the largest producer of pork in the country and a major North Carolina producer, for comment on their strategy to adapt to heavier storms in North Carolina. They declined to comment.
Hog death during storms
Sherri White-Williamson (second from left) discusses decision-making before and after storms in 2019. (Credit: Duke Environment/Twitter)
Sherri White-Williamson, Environmental Justice Director for the NC Conservation Network and a resident of Duplin County, a North Carolina hog farm hotspot, highlighted the additional problem of hog mortality and disposal during these storms.
"They don't get picked up on a regular basis ... by the time they pick them up decomposition has already started and you can see the fluid from that decomposition dripping from the trucks on the road," she told EHN.
She said when these animals are collected, the flies, the odor, and other disease carrying vectors have already settled and create additional health concerns for nearby communities and for water quality.
The issue of hog mortality around concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) first came up in 2014 when the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv) rocked the pork industry in the U.S. and Canada, leading to the death of millions of pigs. At the time, the Waterkeeper Alliance called out the haphazard handling of the dead hogs—which were disposed of in mass graves in what was often the 100-year flood plain—and brought forward concerns over groundwater contamination from the decomposing bodies.
Lindsey said that since Hurricane Floyd, storm-caused hog mortality has gone down. "Farmers and their partner companies work hard in preparation for storms to make sure our animals are cared for during a storm," he said, "Barns that are in flood-prone areas are cleared before a storm and the animals moved to higher ground. The results speak for themselves. We have very little animal mortality during storms."
However, during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the Department of Agriculture estimated around 2,800 hogs died during the storm. Florence was worse, killing an estimated 5,500 hogs, along with more than 3.4 million chickens.
Hendrick also said that when it comes to the handling of animal mortality, it is once again the taxpayer who is "footing the bill" through the expansion of tax dollars to the Department of Agriculture to help with mortality management services.
North Carolina hog farming regulation
Hendrick, and Communications Director for the NC Conservation Network, Brian Powell, pointed out that one of the reasons that the handling of these waste management systems has been so lax is because the DEQ's regional offices are less capable of responding to issues as a result of "draconian budget cuts" specifically targeting those offices.
"For instance, the DEQ Wilmington Regional Office, which would be responding to breaches or impacts in Duplin County, has seen a significant decrease in staffing as a result of decisions by the legislature," said Hendrick. In 2019, the nonpartisan environmental accountability nonprofit the Environmental Integrity Projectfound the DEQ lost 34 percent of its funding for pollution control programs between 2008 and 2018, resulting in a loss of more than 370 staff positions over the same period and making it one of the states with the largest budget cuts alongside New York, Texas, Arizona, and Louisiana. Adjusting for inflation, if the DEQ's budget had remained consistent over the years, it should have received $136 million in 2018 alone. It only received $80 million for fiscal year 2020.
Hog farms are required by law to get an annual inspection from the DEQ. But Hendrick said that because of staff cuts, the DEQ has trouble meeting that quota, oftentimes resulting in infrequent visits that last "less than 20 minutes," which is a fact that one of the DEQ's top officials in the inspection of North Carolina hog operations, Christine Lawson, admitted in the recent Artis v. Murphy-Brown nuisance suit brought against members of the hog industry. These annual inspections are separate from visits scheduled around specific community complaints, which Hendrick said consist of meetings where "operators are pre-notified and often scramble to demonstrate compliance."
EHN reached out to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality's Division of Water Infrastructure that handles information on swine operation, but they didn't respond.
New hog farming waste technology
"The lagoon and sprayfield system was developed by experts at North Carolina State University specifically for the soil and water characteristics of North Carolina," said Lindsey. "It is the model for swine farms across the country. While we continuously look for ways to improve the system, it remains the best available option for our farms."
But Hendrick, Powell, and White-Williamson said that the only thing stopping the industry from dropping what the state considers an outdated system is their unwillingness to invest in superior technology.
"It's just a matter of acknowledging the recent history, and preparing for its continuation, instead of pretending like there's nothing to see here, there's no problem with the status quo, and as long as we continue to manage this waste in the way we have, there won't be any problems," Hendrick said.
Environmental advocates and residents in the state have been calling for a dismantling of the lagoon and sprayfield system, in favor of "environmentally superior technologies," such as a system called Terra Blue, which would replace open cesspools with closed tanks and reduce ammonia through the introduction of nitrogen consuming bacteria. Lindsey said that this technology was not economically feasible, despite its passing of all government and industry technical, operational, and environmental standards.
Others have pointed to Advanced Nitrification/Denitrification (AND) like major pork producer Smithfield uses in its Missouri operations to reduce the amount of ammonia coming off of cesspools. The industry has also looked to biogas investment as an economically viable alternative, though that comes with its own set of community and environmental health concerns.
Powell added that for increasingly intense hurricanes specifically, the issue also depends on the development of statewide storm and flood resilience programs. As North Carolina comes up on another hurricane season in June, groups like the Eastern NC Recovery and Resilience Alliance, a coalition of local governments created to better prepare the region for extreme weather events, have been calling for legislative moves that would fund a statewide flood blueprint, which would better position governments to address the technical aspects of flood mitigation, including predictive hydrologic modeling.
In March, the North Carolina Coastal Federation also came out with a blueprint for how communities could use nature-based flood solutions, including backyard rain gardens, watershed restoration, and strategies that limit impermeable surfaces like concrete or asphalt, to combat the projected increase in rainfall.
"To the extent that we begin implementing some of those solutions and coming up with a statewide flood management strategy, there probably will be beneficial impacts to agricultural facilities in addition to communities," Powell said.