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.
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.