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The Nasty Fallout From North Carolina’s Powerful Hog Industry

What smells more — the politics or the pigs?

Part of the Series

A recent editorial in The New York Times on the problem of hog waste in North Carolina nicely illustrates the ugly, long-term consequences of unchecked money in politics.

In eastern North Carolina, the Times editorial board writes, “giant pools of bright pink sludge” dot the landscape. They are waste lagoons, places where industrial farms in North Carolina dump billions of gallons of (weak stomach warning) untreated pig urine and feces. North Carolina is home to 8.9 million hogs, making it the second largest pork producer in the nation. Fourteen of these lagoons flooded after Hurricane Matthew, leading to a host of potential problems, including the contamination of groundwater, which is what about 3 million North Carolinians rely on to drink.

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The story reminded us of a trip Bill Moyers took to the state in 1999 to better understand the powerful hog industry there for a program called Free Speech for Sale. Despite massive growth in the 1980s and 90s, corporate hog farms continued to dispose of the waste from millions of hogs in the same way small, independent farms had before: collecting it in lagoons, then spraying it onto nearby fields. While the hogs were great for the state financially, they were lousy neighbors.

Watch the segment:

When Bill visited the state in 1999, he met Cindy Watson, a Republican member of the North Carolina General Assembly. After her constituents complained about the smell of the pig waste, along with its effect on drinking water, she pushed the industry to clean up its act.

She helped pass a moratorium in 1997 to limit the growth of hog farms until the industry came up with a better way to dispose of the pig waste. But when she was up for re-election, she was viciously attacked through an extensive advertising campaign, financed by Farmers For Fairness, a cover for a consortium of corporate hog interests. She lost.

Three months after Bill’s report aired, North Carolina was hit by Hurricane Floyd, which dumped 19 inches of rain on the state, causing the lagoons to flood. As The New York Times reported at the time, “feces and urine soaked the terrain and flowed into rivers from the overburdened waste pits the industry calls lagoons,” adding that “waste from the farms is expected to keep leaching into the water supply until next spring.”

Given the influence of the hog industry, perhaps it’s not surprising that all these years later, problems remain, as The Times described in its recent op-ed:

In states where hog farmers use waste lagoons, like North Carolina and Illinois, flooding is a serious hazard that may become more frequent as climate change leads to more severe storms. Even under normal conditions, lagoons can produce dangerous gases, noxious smells and dust containing hog waste. People living near these lagoons are at increased risk of asthma, diarrhea, eye irritation, depression and other health problems.

While North Carolina no longer allows lagoons to be constructed for pig waste, some 4,000 built before 1997 remain in active use. The Times writes that North Carolina State University has found several safer ways to get rid of all that waste. They conclude, “Unless North Carolina and other states require agriculture companies to change their waste-disposal methods, what happened after Hurricane Matthew will happen again.”

And let’s face it, that stinks.

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