A map of industrial hog farms in eastern North Carolina. Though the map shows data from 1998-2000, current data isn't significantly different. Map by Steve Wing et al.

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Some hog farms affected by the recent recession could reopen with waste lagoons, though the number may be small.

By Gabe Rivin

In the North Carolina House and Senate, lawmakers have approved legislation granting a reprieve to inactive hog farms, allowing some older farms to return to operation without meeting newer standards for managing hog waste.

Lawmakers have included the legislative language in two bills: HB 760, the House’s regulatory reform bill, and SB 513, the Senate’s farm bill. Both bills have been approved in their respective chambers.

The North Carolina Pork Council, the state’s industry group, has pushed for the legislation, arguing that it protects farmers who have suffered from an unstable demand for pork.

A waste lagoon outside of a hog farm. Photo by Rick Dove, Waterkeeper Alliance. Copyright Rick Dove

“Several years ago, around the time that the economy tanked, a couple of pork production companies went bankrupt, and there were a number of farmers that found themselves without a contract with a pork production company,” said Angie Maier, the director of policy development and communications at the Pork Council. “[They were] without pigs, without the ability to make a living.”

Under current law, if hog farms have been inactive for four or more years and then return to operation, they must meet the stricter environmental standards placed on new farms.

These standards include a ban on the use of anaerobic lagoons, which treat hog waste, and systems that spray the treated waste onto nearby fields.

But upgrading to new, more environmentally protective technology can be prohibitively expensive, Maier said.

The bills before the General Assembly would rewrite these requirements. Under the Senate’s and House’s bills, hog farmers would be allowed a 10-year window of inactivity. After this period, they would be subject to the environmental standards placed on new farms.

Statewide research has indicted hog farms for a number of health issues, including increases to nearby residents’ blood pressure and spikes in harmful air pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide. Residents have complained of headaches, diarrhea, drug-resistant bacterial infections and the nuisance of bad odors, an apparent consequence of living near hog farms that use lagoon and sprayfield systems.

The issue is most pronounced for residents in North Carolina’s eastern counties, where hog farms are densely clustered. Many residents in these counties are poor and racial minorities, a pattern that environmentalists have cited in a legal complaint to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, claiming that North Carolina’s hog regulations are racially discriminatory. The EPA is currently investigating the claim.

However, the bills before the General Assembly could have a limited impact on health, given the overall size of the industry. The Pork Council estimates that only about 20 farms currently would benefit from the legislative provisions.

After the storms

North Carolina’s current swine regulations date back to the 1990s, when lawmakers and residents witnessed the gruesome combination of eastern hurricanes and industrial animal production.

Drowned hogs in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd. Photo by Rick Dove, Waterkeeper Alliance. Copyright Rick Dove

In 1996, Hurricane Fran flooded eastern North Carolina, killing some 16,000 pigs and carrying away the animals’ waste. Three years later, the public saw more images of pink floating bodies, as Hurricane Floyd hurt the state’s pork industry, drowning about 30,000 hogs and once again carrying away their waste.

The hurricanes, among other issues, led the General Assembly to set strict limits on the pork industry. Beginning in 1997, hog farmers were prohibited from constructing or expanding farms and waste lagoons.

In 2007, the General Assembly passed a law to make the moratorium permanent on lagoons and spray systems. In addition to the moratorium though, the law set additional environmental requirements for new or expanded farms. Under the law, new farms would have to meet environmental performance standards, which called for reduced groundwater contamination and airborne ammonia at farms, among other requirements.

The state’s intention was that “these farms are on the ground, but we think if you’re going to have new farms that you need to meet a higher standard,” said Tom Bean, a consultant with the Environmental Defense Fund. “That’s because lagoon and sprayfield systems were not adequate.”

But the 2007 law left an exception. Farms that already had permits were exempt from these standards.

Numerous farms, then, could still use open-air lagoons and spray systems to manage hog feces, so long as they already had a permit. Yet if a farm sat empty for four or more years, it would lose that exemption – a potentially costly problem for farmers, and the reason for this year’s bills.

Two sides work together

Environmentalists, including the Environmental Defense Fund, collaborated with the pork industry to shape the legislation, a joint effort that Bean said he appreciated, given the industry’s influence in the General Assembly.

Environmentalists were concerned after House lawmakers approved a version of the legislation with potentially large loopholes. In its original form, the legislation would have allowed an idled farm to reopen without meeting the 2007 standards, so long as it had been idle for five or more years.

A map of industrial hog farms in eastern North Carolina. Though the map shows data from 1998-2000, current data isn’t significantly different. Map by Steve Wing, et al

“It seemed ludicrous to imagine that in a hundred years it would still be possible to repopulate a farm no matter how long it had been out of operation, using technology that was current at the end of the 20th century,” Bean said.

The provision also could have allowed the reopening of farms that throughout the early 2000s received public funds to close, according to Michelle Nowlin, a lecturer at Duke University’s law school. These were farms that had a higher risk of flooding during large storms and hurricanes.

The farms received both state and federal money to close. In addition, some farms received funding through pork giant Smithfield as part of a legal agreement between the company and North Carolina’s state government, seeking a phasing out of open-air lagoons in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd.

Recognizing these issues, environmentalists and the pork industry struck a deal on the 10-year window. Additionally, under the bills farms could not reopen with lagoons if they had received public funds or settlement funds to close or if they lay within the areas that historically have flooded.

“It is my understanding that all groups are comfortable with the clarifications made forth in this amendment,” said Rep. John Bell (R-Goldsboro), a primary sponsor of HB 760 and the House majority whip, while speaking to the full House.

Bean, of the Environmental Defense Fund, said that he still opposes the new legislation. He also said that the legislation could upset some residents near idled farms.

But the Pork Council sees this year’s legislation as bringing parity to the law.

“If you have two farms that were built in the same year, that are the same size, and everything about them is the same except one has continued to operate and the other one didn’t have animals for more than four years, there’s nothing different about those two facilities,” Maier said. “The law was treating them differently, and for an arbitrary reason.”

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Gabe Rivin

Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...