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.