“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.”