The odor outside of industrial swine operations is worst at 6 a.m. and p.m. Still, some residents have experienced a stench so potent it kept them up at night. Children whose homes are too close to these Concentrated Animal Feed Operations are mocked in school for smelling like hog waste. These accounts were collected by Steve Wing, an epidemiologist who investigated the major swine production industry in North Carolina in 2013. Since then, major swine operations continue to grow in size and concentration.
These CAFOs are concentrated in the coastal plains region of North Carolina, east of the Neuse River. The area’s high concentration of farms makes it inevitable that residential communities overlap with big agriculture.
The level of pollution in these communities can sometimes be so bad that people can’t spend long periods of time outside without ill effects. People in Duplin County communities have complained that long periods of exposure resulted in coughing, gagging and feelings of nausea. An environmental factor with this level of impact, imposed by pork producers, limits people’s abilities to operate normally on a day-to-day basis.
According to a study conducted by Wing, the excess of hog operations is greatest in areas with both high poverty and high percentage of non-whites. The imbalance created by this concentration of major factory farms is not even a necessary evil. Before swine production was dominated by major CAFOs, hog operations were more evenly distributed and reasonable in size, according to the North Carolina Waterkeeper Alliance’s CAFO campaign manager, Rick Dove.
The Pure Water Campaign strives for a solution that holds swine producers accountable for the increase in harmful environmental impact with no increase in the number of swine produced. A century ago there were about 60 million swine being bred for the meat industry. Today, that number remains accurate, with only minor fluctuations during the years. Despite this consistency in pig population, reports continue to emerge that document the environmental catastrophes associated with swine production, according to Dove.
North Carolina remains the second-largest producer of swine in the U.S., behind Iowa. In Iowa, there are more than 40,000 people operating more than 6,000 swine farms that produce as many as 20 million pigs at any given time, according to the Iowa Pork Producers Association. In North Carolina, there are about 10 million factory-farmed hogs being raised on more than 8,000 different operations. Yet, with only half the number of swine, North Carolina faces more and bigger ecological issues. These issues are the result of a disproportionate concentration of farms in the eastern portion of North Carolina.
A myriad studies produced by various agencies have documented the development of waste problems related to swine farming in North Carolina. A 1995 study of the odors produced by major swine operations showed that people living in close proximity experienced more feelings of tension, depression, anger, fatigue and confusion. In 2005, a study of hog farms in Duplin and Sampson counties showed that residents were prone to increased instances of respiratory, sinus and nausea problems. A 2014 study called for further attention to be paid to the ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide, gases that could be produced in harmful quantities depending on the size of the operation.
These studies come after years of reported catastrophes. In 1969, a cholera epidemic affected a moderate farm owned by Wendell Murphy in North Carolina. The cholera outbreak seemed to have been a result of a drastic increase in the number of swine being raised on the farm. After the government quarantined the farm and ordered the culling of infected animals, Murphy used the opportunity to diversify his business and called for others to raise his swine while he provided the necessary equipment.
By 1986, Murphy Family Farms had become the major producer of swine in the state, and in 1988, Wendell Murphy was elected to the State Senate. In the 30 years after the cholera outbreak that affected Murphy’s farms, there were 46 reported instances of waste spillage in farms owned by Murphy. Throughout its explosive expansion, Murphy Family Farms has been the target of several ecological lawsuits. One particular operation owned by Murphy was sued twice in 1999 and 2000 and experienced a spill mid-lawsuit both times. While Murphy is one of the worst examples of big business negatively impacting the environment, any producer might create these circumstances if they have a major concentration of animals combined with outdated waste management systems.
Proponents of major CAFOs would argue that their management systems present no increase in harmful after-effects. The harmful effects purported by environmental lobbyists, including the contamination of groundwater and the degradation of air quality, seem to have been carefully accounted for resulting in no cause for alarm.
According to the swine experts at NC State, a CAFO is any facility that houses more than 1,000 animals, any facility that houses more than 300 animals and discharges waste directly into accessible waterways or any facility that the permitting body designates on a case-by-case basis. This is true, and there are some small family-held operations that have these low numbers, but the vast majority of disaster inducing CAFOs have swine populations in the thousands.
The narrative proponents of the pork industry currently face is that the waste from these hundreds of animals is collected and stored in man-made, open-air, lagoons that are treated with chemicals and used as fertilizer spray. Environmental lobbyists claim that these practices are irresponsible. An NC State expert disagrees.
“It is very difficult not to be environmentally conscious in North Carolina given the regulations that govern these CAFOs,” said Mark Knauer, assistant professor of animal science and extension swine specialist.
Several government agencies regulate the waste management of major swine CAFOs, including the Department of Environmental Quality, which has three divisions dedicated to waste management, water and air quality. However, the degree of cleanliness varies among the many farms. These agencies are supposed to inspect the integrity of waste cesspools which are required to be built within a certain regulated spec, but a certain margin of error must be accounted for when dealing with more than 8,000 farms. This results in some farms with waste management systems that aren’t entirely environmentally sound.
“They are designed as anaerobic treatment systems,” said Mark Rice, extension specialist and member of the Animal Waste Management team.
While these treatment systems do serve some sort of purpose, they incur obvious risks. Open-air treatment systems are exposed and vulnerable to wind and rain that can result in disastrous spills of toxic materials. The top water layer of waste treatment lagoons, sometimes used to fertilize fields, can result in groundwater contamination. This supposedly safe material, when poured on unlined ground and in indiscriminate amounts, has been linked with the contamination of underground wells.
Examinations of NC State swine facilities were extremely clean, but this is not the typical state of the major industrial operations according to Dove. The lack of transparency in big agriculture contributes to the obfuscation of a multi-billion-dollar industry that affects millions of people. These people are being marginalized when more could possibly be done to alleviate the injustices brought against them while still maintaining production levels.
“They are taking all our freedoms away,” said Elsie Herring of the impact on her life in an interview with Wing.