Failed hog farm takeover in North Carolina puts vulnerable communities at risk

In May, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper (D) asked the Republican-controlled state legislature to include $18 million in the new state budget to fund the buyout program of the state’s hog floodplains. Created in 1999 in response to the devastating flooding from Hurricane Floyd that sent massive amounts of pollution from hog farms into communities and waterways, the program buys out farm owners in low-lying flood-prone areas.

But the budget passed by the legislature — and signed into law by Cooper on July 1 — does not include funding for the program.

“This is one of many examples of this industry wielding political power in the legislature,” said Brooks Pearson, legislative counsel at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) in Chapel Hill. The nonprofit law firm has long fought to protect communities from pollution from pig farms.

The pork industry has been a powerful political force in North Carolina for decades. Since 2000, hog farmers and other meat industry interests have paid more than $5.6 million to North Carolina state nominees, as Vox recently reported. Moreover, several legislators are themselves farmers who defend the interests of the industry.

Funds from the buyout scheme have also been used to shut down pig farms’ notoriously smelly ‘lagoons’ – massive open pits used to store animal waste including feces, urine and blood. When lagoons are full, the contents are usually sprayed onto nearby fields, risking runoff into waterways while making life miserable for nearby residents. And while lagoons pose a particular risk during hurricane season, they can overflow at any time due to lack of maintenance coupled with weak regulatory oversight.

In December 2020, for example, a lagoon failure at DC Mills Farm in Jones County, eastern North Carolina spilled 1 million gallons of hog waste into a tributary of the Trent River. The farm raised pigs for Smithfield Foods, a Virginia-based food processing company owned by Chinese conglomerate WH Group. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had previously cited DC Mills Farm twice for overcapacity lagoons.

“It’s not necessarily about whether there will be another devastating hurricane in eastern North Carolina,” Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell told Facing South. “We see climate change manifesting itself in a more restricted way. When three or four inches of rain are dumped at once – and that’s not an event here in eastern North Carolina, it happens all the time. weather – this causes severe localized flooding.”

For a time, conservationists were buoyed by farmer interest in buying up hog floodplains. In total, the state has spent nearly $19 million to shut down operations at 43 hog farms. But in 2007 — the same year the legislature made its 1997 moratorium on hog farms permanent — it cut funding for the program. More than 100 farmers who applied were returned empty-handed.

“There’s very little that conservationists and CAFO operators agree on, but it looks like a hog buyout could be one of them,” Howell said.

Although the state’s hog farms remained under scrutiny after a series of hurricanes and lagoon ruptures, the buyback program didn’t resume until 2018, when Hurricane Florence sent animal waste from 46 lagoons flowing into communities and waterways.

Twenty-three farmers applied for the latest round of buyout funding, but there was only enough money to close three to five facilities, according to the state’s Soil and Water Conservation Division. The number of farmers volunteering for the program has consistently exceeded funding, leaving the communities most affected by the industry vulnerable to disasters.

“Every time this program is funded, there are more requests than there is money to cover it,” Pearson said. “The wall we usually hit is Steve Troxler.”

Troxler, Republican Agriculture Commissioner-elect in North Carolina, has campaigned to make agriculture a $100 billion industry in the state. At the same time, his campaign is heavily backed by agricultural interests, with the North Carolina Pork Council and Smithfield Foods among his top donors, according to FollowTheMoney.org.

Given current political realities, Pearson thinks any policy proposal that reduces hog numbers in North Carolina is unlikely to work. The entire legislature is up for election this year, but it will be elected using pro-GOP GOP-drawn maps. For Republicans to regain the supermajority and override Cooper’s veto, they must win three seats in the State House and two in the Senate.

Meanwhile, new pressure is mounting to keep hog waste lagoons operating thanks to state energy companies. In 2020, Smithfield Foods and Virginia-based Dominion Energy proposed the largest hog waste-to-energy project in North Carolina. The $500 million project would involve lining waste lagoons to collect methane gas, which would then be processed and transported by pipeline and sold to Piedmont Natural Gas.

“It’s the poster child for greenwashing,” said Blakely Hildebrand, senior attorney at SELC. “The industry sees biogas as the miracle solution to the climate crisis for the agricultural industry. And it is far from it.”

As powerful industries combine to continue polluting, the resulting pain is borne disproportionately by residents of North Carolina’s environmental justice communities. A growing body of public health research shows that people who live closer to industrial animal operations get sick more often, stay sick longer, and die more often than people who live farther away. And census data shows between a quarter and a third of residents in the state’s top pork-producing counties are black and about a quarter are Latino. In Robeson County, home to both hog and poultry farms, nearly 42% of residents are Native American and 23% are black.

Despite the environmental health risks, the DEQ issued permits to four farms to begin biogas operations earlier this year – a move that many advocates viewed as environmental racism.

“There’s a lot of talk about how covering the lagoons will be good for smells and for things related to flooding,” Howell said. “But what no one is talking about is how building natural gas infrastructure is doing nothing to reduce the number of open lagoons in eastern North Carolina.”

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