by Ken Fine and Erica Hellerstein

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part investigation into North Carolina’s hog-farming industry. The first story (available at triad-city-beat.com) examined claims by lower-income African-American residents of eastern North Carolina that neighboring hog farms have polluted their properties, and efforts by lawmakers to shield pork producers from litigation. This story looks at the environmental impact hog farming has had over the last two decades, particularly on waterways such as the Neuse River. The final piece will discuss ways to make the multibillion-dollar hog industry more sustainable, both for the environment and the state’s rural population, and the political and financial reasons those steps have not been taken.
— Jeffrey Billman, editor of
Indy Week

PART TWO: THE FLOOD

I. ‘Mother Nature will strike back’
On Sept. 16, 1999, Hurricane Floyd, a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 110 mph and a storm surge of nearly 10 feet, made landfall at Cape Fear. Between 15 and 20 inches of rain pummeled eastern North Carolina. Forty-eight people died. Thousands more were displaced.

To make matters worse, just a few weeks earlier, Hurricane Dennis had brought heavy rains to the region. By the time Floyd hit, nearly every river basin in the eastern part of the state exceeded 500-year flood levels. In the end, Floyd caused nearly $7 billion in damage.

The torrential downpour unleashed something else, too: When the floodwaters saturated miles of North Carolina’s farmland, they swallowed many of the farm animals that made their homes in those fields. Tens of thousands of hogs and chickens drowned, and millions of gallons of waste — a mixture of feces, urine, blood and other fluids housed in lagoons — merged with the swollen Neuse River and its tributaries.

When those floodwaters receded and soaked into the ground, they took the contents of those lagoons with them. The pollutants entered the Neuse River basin, a waterway that begins its eastward path in Durham and feeds into the Pamlico Sound, the nation’s second-largest estuarine complex. The sound is so vast — 80 miles long and 20 miles wide — that, in 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano mistook it for the Pacific Ocean. Today it provides an estimated 90 percent of the state’s commercial fish and shellfish catches, an industry worth nearly $100 million annually.

Floyd put all that in jeopardy. Nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals found in the waste sat dormant in the Neuse and the sound it feeds. Months later, rising water temperatures activated the growth of algae blooms. During their ultimate decomposition, those blooms sucked the oxygen out of the water below, and hundreds of thousands of fish washed up dead on riverbanks.

These events prompted the legislature to authorize the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which allocated $18.7 million for the voluntary buyouts of hog and chicken farms located inside the Neuse’s floodplain. But while 43 farmers shut down — representing at least 60,000 hogs and more than 100 lagoons, according to state records — 62 farms remained, housing more than 250,000 hogs and nearly 2 million chickens.

Scientists and clean-water advocates have long worried that a sequel to Floyd could once again devastate eastern North Carolina.

“I live on the Neuse River, and I’ve seen the fish die in this river,” says former Neuse Riverkeeper Rick Dove. “We’ve lost over a billion [fish] in this river due to pollution. There’s no river in the US that has suffered more fish kills than the Neuse. And let me tell you something; the laws of nature are far more powerful than the laws of men. And when you abuse nature over a long period of time, she’s very forgiving and she’s healing, but if you continue to pollute and desecrate and violate the laws of nature, she will strike back with something to stop you.”

Last fall, she struck back.

neuse river

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Hurricane Matthew, a Category 1 storm that rotated over North Carolina for more than 12 hours, washed out entire towns, uprooted centuries-old trees and destroyed businesses. According to the NC Pork Council, 14 waste lagoons flooded. When those waters receded, they took the contents of those lagoons with them, clean-water advocates say. What didn’t end up in the river soaked into the ground. And when water temperatures rise this summer, they argue, that waste could reveal itself in the form of fish-killing algae that has the potential to damage the state’s seafood industry.

“We don’t even know what the summer will bring,” Dove says. “But I think it’s safe to say it’s going to be another wake-up call.”

II. ‘A goodly river called Neuse’
For thousands of years, the Neuse River — which snakes more than 275 miles across North Carolina — provided fresh water and food to the indigenous people who called eastern North Carolina home. It remained unknown to English speakers until 1585, when a pair of explorers commissioned by Sir Walter Raleigh wrote about their escapades along “a goodly river called Neuse.”

Its recent history has been problematic. Even before Floyd, scientists say, the estuary fed by the Neuse was gasping for air.

“It seems like [the Pamlico Sound] in the summer is always on the cusp of becoming hypoxic,” says Travis Graves, who recently retired as the Lower Neuse riverkeeper. “It’s always struggling for oxygen.”

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Graves’s claim is supported by research dating as far back as 1998. That year, the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences published a report by ecology professor Hans Paerl and colleagues that concluded that a major rain event would result in hypoxia-induced fish kills along the Neuse River and within the Pamlico Sound. The culprit would be washed-out animal waste lagoons that would pollute the waterway. Paerl and his coauthors identified agricultural expansion and the proliferation of concentrated animal-feeding operations, or CAFOs, as the primary causes of “these troubling symptoms of eutrophication.”

Two years after Floyd, in 2001, a report by Duke University civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Borsuk noted that the Neuse was “a typical example of a stressed coastal system.” The river’s estuary was experiencing symptoms of nutrient overload, including algal blooms, low levels of dissolved oxygen, fish kills and outbreaks of toxic microorganisms, problems he blamed in part on “a growing commercial hog-farming industry.”

In October 2006, an article in the Journal of Environmental Engineering concluded that the Neuse’s estuary suffered from fecal contamination. It blamed livestock waste introduced into the waterway by “open-field manure spraying systems [and] agricultural animal manure runoff from confined animal feeding operations.”

In addition, a 2015 study by the US Geological Survey and the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources found that 58 percent of watersheds in the state’s coastal plain that contained industrialized animal operations had “distinct water-quality differences, reflecting swine and/or poultry CAFO manure effects” — an indication, environmentalists say, that even absent a natural disaster, an adverse environmental impact was present.

Despite two decades of evidence, however, not much has changed.

In April, the national water conservation organization American Rivers ranked the Neuse (along with Cape Fear) as the seventh most endangered river in the country, citing the harmful chemicals — nitrogen, phosphorus, blood and fecal matter — that have been making their way into the river because of nearby hog and poultry operations. Hurricane Matthew exacerbated these longstanding problems, according to the report.

“The threat these facilities and their antiquated waste operations pose to our waters will only increase as the effects of climate change become more prevalent and North Carolina is subjected to more frequent powerful storms,” the report says.

III. ‘We cannot sacrifice the environment’
Here’s how hog-waste lagoons are supposed to work:

A farmer digs a pond-like basin, usually eight to 15 feet deep, next to a row of hog houses. When the pigs inside those hog houses relieve themselves, their waste falls through small slits on the slanted floor and into a concrete storage pit. That waste is then piped into the lagoon.

butler farms nc hog farm

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From there, science takes over. Solids in the wastewater separate and settle into layers of liquid on top and sludge below. Whenever the cesspool levels rise, the liquid is then pumped onto nearby spray fields as crop fertilizer. This prevents the open-air lagoon from flooding.

Hog farmers have been utilizing this practice since at least the 1970s. The hog industry has long argued that the sludge inside the lagoons creates a natural seal, preventing leakage and contamination of nearby groundwater supplies. The industry says this became especially true after the late ’80s, when lining lagoons with dense compacted clay became a best practice.

In 1993, the state’s Division of Environmental Management told lawmakers that lagoons are constructed to self-seal; two years later, Wendell Murphy, a powerful Democratic state legislator and patriarch of Murphy Family Farms, told the News & Observer that “lagoons will seal themselves” and that there’s not “one shred, not one piece of evidence anywhere in this nation that any groundwater is being contaminated by a hog lagoon.”

Agriculture experts disagree. Because most North Carolina hog farms are located in five eastern counties situated in the Inner Coastal Plain, a region defined by permeable sandy soil, leakage is unavoidable, they say. And they point out that while lagoons constructed after the late ’80s were lined with clay, most of the older lagoons were never retrofitted.

In 1995, Rodney Huffman, an associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering at NC State University, conducted a study on the state’s unlined lagoons that were at least seven years old. He and his fellow researchers found that more than half of them leaked “moderately to severely,” leaving nitrate levels in groundwater up to three times the EPA’s allowable limit. (Research has linked high nitrate levels in groundwater to potentially fatal heart defects in children.)

How much a lagoon could leak depends on the type of soil it was dug in, says John Classen, an NC State professor and an expert on agricultural waste management. Those dug closer to the center of the state, which has more clay soil, tend to leak less. But even the cesspools lined with clay can leak, he says, though not as much as the ones in more porous sandy soil. In fact, he adds, even concrete-lined lagoons could leak “on the same order of magnitude as that clay liner.”

In other words, Classen says, all lagoons have the potential to leak; the question is how much.

In 1997, two years after the publication of a Pulitzer Prize-winning N&O series looking at the environmental hazards of hog farming, the state legislature placed a moratorium on the construction of new hog farms and lagoons. But the cesspools already in use were left untouched.

The environmental implications of lagoons, however, made then-Gov. Jim Hunt nervous. A longtime industry ally, Hunt outlined a plan in April 1999 to phase out the lagoon system over 10 years.

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“My views and most views have evolved to where we have to take stronger action to clear up our water and rivers,” Hunt told the New York Times. “We need a strong economy for our people, but we cannot sacrifice the environment for jobs.”

Hunt’s proposal failed to attract a single sponsor in the General Assembly. But that September, Hurricane Floyd ravaged the eastern part of the state, emptying the lagoons’ contents into waterways. Then people began paying attention.

In 2000, then-Attorney General Mike Easley, another Democrat who would later become governor, entered into an agreement with pork giant Smithfield Foods in which the industry agreed to fund a $17 million experiment to find more environmentally sound ways to dispose of hog waste. Ultimately, the project identified five technologies that reduced odor emissions and the risk of pollution, nutrient and heavy metal contamination, and “disease-transmitting vectors and airborne pathogens.”

The problem was that these technologies were deemed economically viable only for implementation on new farms.

Since no new hog farms have been constructed since the moratorium was put into place in 1997, these technologies have largely gone unused in North Carolina.

Even so, says Andy Curliss, CEO of the NC Pork Council, hog farms today operate in an environmentally responsible manner.

“Since the industry’s rapid growth in the 1980s and 1990s, there have been major, far-reaching changes in how hog farms operate and how they are regulated by the state,” he said in a statement. “Today, North Carolina has the most stringent regulations in the nation for hog farmers.”

IV. ‘You can write down whatever you want’
If scientists knew how old a lagoon was and what it was lined with, they could make an educated guess about its propensity to leak, look for potential groundwater contamination and determine how much ecological damage might have occurred, if any.

But North Carolina doesn’t maintain that information in a central database. The NC Department of Environmental Quality says that acquiring that information would require contacting the regional office that oversees each individual farm and asking if it has hard copies of that farm’s records. That wouldn’t be easy; according to the US Department of Agriculture, there are more than 2,200 hog farms in North Carolina.

In an email, DEQ spokeswoman Marla Sink acknowledges that collecting “the age of the lagoon” falls under the DEQ’s purview. But, she writes, “The age of the lagoons varies greatly and we do not have actual construction dates of most of these lagoons.”

The industry shrugs off concerns about aging liners — especially clay liners — and the potential for groundwater contamination. As Smithfield Foods wrote in an email interview, “There is no limit on the life of clay liners.… They are inspected on a regular basis by producers and by the regulators. The performance of clay liners may actually improve over time.” Moreover, “hog farming is the most highly regulated sector in all of agriculture. Every farm is inspected by the state every year to ensure compliance with strict environmental regulations,” which include “lagoon integrity and liner conditions.”

But Tom Butler, a Lillington hog farmer who has been in the business since 1994, says those inspections have become less rigorous over the past two decades. While he agrees that on paper the industry is among the most regulated in the state, he says the inspection process has become increasingly less comprehensive — and more and more, it relies on farmers to regulate themselves, because the inspections draw on each farmer’s own records.

State statute requires one inspection a year at every animal operation. But 20 years ago, he says, his farm was inspected at least three times a year.

“We used to be scared to death when [the inspectors] came, because they actually went out in the spray fields,” says Butler, who is celebrated among environmental activists for covering his lagoons, which reduces odors and prevents flooding, and converting hog waste into electricity. “In the early days, it was more closely inspected. There was more touring around the farm. We would actually go to spray fields and look at grass and the weeds and stuff. We would always check the lagoon levels. We would actually do it physically.”

Nowadays, Butler says, inspections on his farm are nothing more than a review of his records of such things as lagoon sludge levels and how much effluent was sprayed.

“They come in, they’re very friendly, we go through the inspection sheet, we go through all the items, they look at your waste management analysis, and then they look at that, make sure you got a current sample, and look at your records, and they look at your calculations of your spray system, they do all that,” he says. “But this is paperwork. This is paperwork that you just show them. You can write down whatever you want to. There’s nothing beyond checking these logs.”

Christine Lawson, manager of the DEQ’s concentrated animal feeding operations program, confirms that the number of annual inspections dropped from two in 2011 to one today, due to budget cuts and the elimination of what the legislature viewed as redundancy. (Lawson says she does not believe inspectors viewed the second inspection as redundant.) But she says those annual inspections consist of more than just a paper audit.

“You physically inspect the facility in addition to the audit of all the records,” she says. “You walk the lagoon, you look for weak spots, you look to make sure it’s being properly maintained, you go to the spray fields. There are many things we look for.”

Still, with limited resources, there’s only so much inspectors can do. The inspectors rely on records kept by the farmers to determine how much and how often they spray effluent onto fields and how much sludge is in their lagoons.

The Pork Council’s Andy Curliss points out that farmers must “keep detailed records that show exactly when they spray, to which section of which field, for how long, and they must record the weather conditions.”

Because of the system’s inherent self-regulation, Lawson acknowledges the possibility that bad actors could fudge the numbers. But if the DEQ caught wind of such activities, he says, the state wouldn’t hesitate to prosecute.

Lawson also confirms that farmers get a heads-up before their annual inspection — as much as a week, Butler says. Inspectors don’t randomly show up unless they’re responding to allegations of impropriety. This is done, Lawson says, to make sure someone will be there when the inspector arrives.

“But if our person is driving down the road and they see something that’s not going right, they’re driving and their vehicle gets sprayed by animal waste, they’re going to stop and deal with it right then,” Lawson says.

Butler, however, says this notification gives farms the chance to get everything in order before the inspectors come.

“We’re always notified,” he says. “If we do have any issues, we can get those cleared away because we know the inspector is coming. And to me, that’s not a good inspection.”

V. ‘A dozen lagoons under water’
Last October, Hurricane Matthew wreaked havoc across eastern North Carolina, causing $1.5 billion in damage to 100,000 homes, businesses, and government buildings, according to a state estimate.

Agricultural operations fared no better.

“I saw about a dozen lagoons under water, and probably another 10 poultry facilities where the barns were underwater,” says Graves, the recently retired Lower Neuse riverkeeper. “Even if the lagoons weren’t breached, you could see that they had been completely flushed. All of that ended up right in the Neuse River.”

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The Pork Council says that 14 lagoons flooded, less than 1 percent of lagoons in the state. Smithfield Foods attributes that to the state’s buyout program after Hurricane Floyd and the “proactive steps taken on North Carolina hog farms.” The company says more serious environmental damage has been incurred by spills at municipal sewage plants.

But lagoons flooding during dramatic rain events isn’t the only concern. Leaking cesspools and seepage and runoff from spray fields also affect fish in state waterways, clean-water advocates say.

“I have seen a fish kill in the lower basin here every year since I’ve been on board as the riverkeeper,” says Graves, whose tenure as riverkeeper began in 2014. “It’s almost like clockwork. We can watch the water temperatures, wait for a rain event, and you can almost predict it to the day. I’ve seen hundreds of millions of [dead] fish.”

Those fish kills occur all along the Neuse River basin, he adds, right down to the Pamlico Sound. And large fish kills in the sound, the birthplace of much of the seafood harvested off the North Carolina coast, could be calamitous both environmentally and economically. Because of Matthew, Graves says, his fears may be realized this summer.

“After the [hurricane], and seeing so many facilities underwater, I have serious concerns over what kind of fish kill numbers we’re going to see this summer,” Graves says. “I’m anticipating it to be the worst summer for fish kills in recent history.”

Earlier this year, when the Neuse was named one of the most endangered rivers in America, riverkeepers began floating the idea of another voluntary buyout. The Pork Council endorsed that proposal; it’s not immediately clear whether or to what degree the legislature’s recently passed budget will fund a new buyout program.

But clean-water advocates say more drastic measures may be necessary — perhaps as drastic as replacing the entire lagoon system. After all, the pork industry ranks among the state’s most vital economic engines, pumping $2.5 billion a year into the state’s economy and accounting for more than 46,000 jobs. It’s not going anywhere. And that means that sooner or later, the state is going to have to figure out a solution to all that waste.

VI. ‘Ten thousand pigs a mile’
From the sky, in a shaky two-person airplane, you can see the paradox: vast expanses of green, lush, North Carolina beauty, zigzagging streams and rivers, all jarringly peppered with pig farms and the pink pools beside them. The perspective has a way of clarifying things. It’s an unnatural convergence between nature and manmade toxicity, and it makes the questions seem all the more urgent. How is this sustainable? Isn’t there a better way to handle this waste? And what’s going to happen the next time a Matthew-type disaster strikes?

Bob Epting, a cheery, 71-year-old pilot, zips through the clouds in his tiny white plane, pointing out the various hog operations and cesspools dotting eastern North Carolina’s otherwise pastoral landscape. They’re everywhere. Over Duplin County, Epting estimates, there are at least 50 within a 10-mile radius. Each farm has a minimum of 2,000 pigs, most far more. So a lowball estimate would mean 100,000 pigs in 10 miles. Ten thousand pigs a mile.

A 180-pound pig can produce 11 pounds of waste a day. That’s 110,000 pounds of waste per mile per day.

Again: What can be done with it?

Epting, a native North Carolinian who has lived in Chapel Hill since college, talks about how much he’s seen the state change — not just the proliferation of commercial farms but the state’s politics as well, from Democratic blue to ruby red. He discusses the paradoxes of Tar Heel politics, Jesse Helms, and industry buddy and former Gov, Jim Hunt, whom Epting says was pestered with a roadside billboard reading “The Feces Governor.”

Epting, a member of the state Environmental Management Commission from 1992 to 2000, began flying over the hog farms after meeting Dove, the former Neuse riverkeeper, who was documenting fish kills and the runoff of agricultural waste into the river. Epting started flying so that Dove could take aerial photos of the land. Now, he says, “I’ve been doing this for a third of my life.”

Even before joining the commission, Epting — who had a law practice in Chapel Hill — had a longstanding interest in clean-air and water issues. During his time on the commission, he saw the waste production of the corporate hog producers and believed stricter regulations were needed.

“I got aggravated about what we saw every time we flew,” he says of his flights with Dove. “In the early days, you could see that, almost inevitably, hog barns and hog lagoons were right in the crook of the arm of the wetland. They were in places where the waste, if it ran off the field, was going to go directly into a stream.”

Back then, he adds, “it was not unusual at all to fly on a cloudy day right after a bad rain or even a hurricane and see pump and spray operations going on. The spray is going up in the air and makes enormous waste, and so you can see it blow.”

After more than an hour in the sky, a gust of wind jostles the plane, and Epting swoops down, green meadows dotted with burned-out fields stretching far below. On this April morning, the water levels are higher than usual, thanks to a massive storm that washed over the state for several days before. The rain triggered flooding the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Matthew, seven months earlier. Streams and rivers appear swollen; saturated fields look like rice paddies.

Not too far away, the Neuse River flows patiently. Today the river looks fine. But it’s hard not to think about tomorrow.

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