Few people know the pig business like North Carolina’s Don Webb.
Webb raised pigs in Wilson County, North Carolina, until, in the late 70s, residents told him the smell near his farms was unbearable. He tried some solutions. They didn’t work.
“I was riding down the road and got to thinking of my own mother and father and what would I do if one of these was their homes [near the pig farms],” Webb said in his heavy Southern drawl. “So I got out of the business.”
Webb, 74, soon went from pig farmer to vocal critic. Over the past few decades he’s frequently done battle with the large pig farms in North Carolina over their waste management. He once took former state Sen. Wendell Murphy, owner of Murphy Farms and notorious for pushing industry-friendly laws, for a ride in his pickup truck to show him his farm's impacts.
He brought the senator to a home where a woman lived with her husband, stricken with tuberculosis. Their home was a trailer. The couch had springs sticking out, Webb recalled.
The stench was noxious
“She told Murphy ‘if you could please do anything to help us, I can’t put my clothes out sometimes and my grandchildren won’t visit me,’” Webb said.
Other neighbors Murphy visited had similar pleas.
Things haven’t changed much since that tour two decades ago. The battle in eastern North Carolina persists as health and environmental groups continue to pressure the state, the second leading pork producing state behind Iowa, to more strictly regulate large pig farms.
Meanwhile evidence continues to mount of the industry's impact in the region: A study published in January concluded that streams near large industrial farms in eastern North Carolina are full of pig poop bacteria.
For those battling the state for more stringent regulations, it's another knock against an industry that heavily impacts their lives.
“People just can’t ignore this,” said Naeema Muhammad, a co-director and community organizer at the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. “The air stinks, the water is contaminated and property values are depleted.”
State permitting questioned
The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources treats large swine farms – operations with thousands of pigs and up – as "non-discharge facilities," exempt from state rules on having to monitor the waste they dump in rivers and streams. The case for that exemption is dubious, suggested Steve Wing, a professor and researcher at the University of North Carolina who co-authored the January study, published in "Science of the Total Environment."
"You have evidence of pig-specific bacteria in surface waters, next to industrial swine operations,” he said.
For about a year, from 2010 to 2011, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of North Carolina tested water both upstream and downstream from fields in eastern North Carolina where pig poop from large factory farms is applied.
The farms generate so much waste that it would be too expensive to transport via pipeline or a truck, Wing said. So manure is dispersed via big pumps and sprayers that act like “a lawn sprinkler," Wing said, and spread the slurry across fields.
The sprayers shower hundreds of gallons per minute (household lawn sprinklers average about two or three gallons per minute).
The highest concentrations were found “immediately downstream" of swine feedlot spray fields and in the spring and summer seasons, the authors wrote.
Of 187 samples, 40 percent exceeded state and federal water guidelines for fecal coliforms, harmful bacteria from animal feces.
In addition, 23 percent and 61 percent of the samples exceeded the water quality standards for E. coli and Enterococcus respectively, two other feces-derived bacteria that can hurt people when ingested.
Sampling took place in Duplin County, a place with more pigs than people: 2 million vs. 60,000. Wing and colleagues tested water from Goshen Swamp, a tributary of the Northeast Cape Fear River.
But a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources said the study “seems to be inconclusive.”
“The information presented provides an indication of overall water quality in these [waters]; however, it is not an indication of a discharge of waste,” Drew Elliot, communications director for the department, wrote in an email after sharing the study with state water quality experts.
The department questioned whether the researchers analyses met the state’s water analysis requirements and pointed out that sources of such fecal pollution could include “any warm blooded animals and failing septic or sewage collection systems.”
But Wing's study accounted for this: Since the fecal bacteria potentially could be from leaking residential septic tanks or other animals, Wing and colleagues tested markers in the bacteria and found the majority matched what would be found in pigs.
A spokesperson for Smithfield Foods agreed with the state’s critique. Smithfield’s subsidiary, Murphy-Brown LLC, is the world’s largest producer of pigs and headquartered in North Carolina.
“The information presented in this study does not accurately reflect waste management practices at Murphy-Brown, and unfairly vilifies North Carolina's agricultural community,” Kathleen Kirkham, director of corporate communications, wrote in an email.
The study is not able to “legitimately differentiate the type of feces in the river between swine, goose, deer or human that will also be there from the natural environment surrounding waterways,” she added.
Wing said the latter is a recurring industry argument and that the bacteria markers they used to pin the pollution on pigs were quite conclusive.
The National Pork Producers Council did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this article. A spokesman for the North Carolina Farm Bureau said the organization doesn’t “typically provide comment on academic studies.”
Wing’s study suggests that the methods for getting rid of animal waste from huge farms are not working.
“The farms hold the waste in lagoons, as the industry euphemistically calls them, which are big cesspools,” said JoAnne Burkholder, a professor and aquatic ecologist at North Carolina State University. The waste can run off from such areas and get into waterways.
The large farms are located in rural areas where many people use private wells. But due largely to a lack of funding, studies on groundwater effects of human health are rare, Burkholder said.
Poor, minorities most impacted
North Carolina environmental and health groups are fed up — not just about the farms’ impact, but who is most impacted.
“It seems that the industry goes into an area that they think is perfect for their needs: lots of land, and people without a voice and not many of them,” Burkholder said.
But Kirkham, Smithfield's spokeswoman, said people from Smithfield are members of the community too.
“We live here, work here, and raise our families here. We have a vested interest in the health and well-being of these communities,” she wrote.
She said the company averages about two or three notices per year from neighbors concerned about the operation.
Duplin County, where Wing’s study took place, is 26 percent black and 21 percent Hispanic, according to the US Census. Duplin’s median income is 25 percent lower than the rest of the state, and 26 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.
Earthjustice - along with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help and Waterkeeper Alliance - filed a civil rights complaint with the EPA against the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which states in part, “lax regulation of hog waste disposal discriminates against communities of color in eastern North Carolina.”
The complaint is a response to the state’s renewal of a general permit for large pig farms to continue operating and storing waste as they have been for years.
“We’ve been asking the state and our representatives for years to do something different about how this industry operates in the state of North Carolina,” Muhammad said. “It was an insult to the community and to the people of the state of North Carolina to renew those permits.”
The complaint was filed in September. Earthjustice is still waiting to hear back from the EPA.
“They’ve been dragging their feet,” said Jocelyn D’Ambrosio, senior associate attorney with Earthjustice.
Forced “bondage of feces”
Webb still makes his home in Wilson County, North Carolina. He works with a group called the Alliance for a Responsible Swine Industry to find solutions to the pig farm waste.
He’s animated when he talks about pig farming. But he strikes a somber tone when he recalls the people impacted.
“The woman taking care of her husband with tuberculosis? She died. Her husband died. They were forced to live years in the bondage of feces and flies,” Webb said.
“So a rich man can have hogs.”
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.