PINK HILL, N.C. __ Leaning out over a bridge railing, Aaron Harris carefully lowers a basket of empty plastic bottles into the slow-moving Goshen Swamp, where they fill with water the color of weak coffee before he reels them back up.
Harris, an environmental specialist with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, samples the water to understand just how polluted the water is after storms sweep debris and pollution into North Carolina’s low-lying watersheds. But residents worry about one potential source of contamination and it’s also the industry that keeps this region alive: Hog farming.
When storms season hits North Carolina, hog farms are some of the most vulnerable places in the state because most hog farmers here dispose of their hog waste in massive open-pit lagoons.
And North Carolina has already endured its wettest year on record. The saturated ground can’t absorb much more rain, which increases the flooding risk. So the storm that approached the region on Thursday only made things worse.
Torrential rains can send hog waste over the top of the lagoon, where it washes into rivers and streams. Sometimes, the lagoons themselves breach, and hog waste spills into the groundwater. During Florence, both happened, with at least 50 flooded lagoons and two breaches.
Catastrophic flooding aside, neighbors say hog farms also present a regular nuisance to their quality of life. That’s in part because of the lagoons, but mostly because of how hog farms traditionally dispose of their waste: Letting the solids settle to the bottom and spraying the floating liquid effluvia onto their fields.
That’s hog feces, hog urine and hog blood, sprayed in clouds sometimes just a few yards from someone’s house. For Elsie Herring, the stink is constant.
“We don’t come outside much, you know. And we don’t open the windows because the odor — you can’t keep the odor out, whether you open the windows or not, you just can’t,” said Herring, perched in a rocking chair on her pink house’s front porch as another spray cloud blew onto her property. “You can smell it now, can’t you.”
Herring is one of 500 plaintiffs suing Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer. The plaintiffs claim Smithfield’s waste-management practice of storing hog shit in lagoons and then spraying it onto fields severely reduces their quality of life.
Nearly every hog farmer in North Carolina is a contract farmer, meaning the agribusiness corporations own the pigs and the farmers own the waste. Morris Murphy has 15,000 head of Smithfield hog on his land in Duplin County, and says the nuisance lawsuits are baseless.
While hog farms do smell, Murphy says, it’s not bad enough to affect his neighbors. His lagoons are open pits, and on a sunny morning in mid-October, didn’t present much of a smell, even just a few feet away.
He’s not being sued, but his friends are. He says at least one fellow hog farmer had his hogs taken back by Smithfield after a lawsuit.
Hog farmers say they can’t afford to operate without open-pit lagoons, and agribusiness conglomerates haven’t shown much willingness to pay to cover the lagoons — an expensive proposition that includes a whole separate system to deal with the biogasses produced by the covered hog poop.
“Personally I think the system’s fine,” Morris said. “Someone needs to come here and prove to me that what I’m doing is bad for the environment before I feel like I need to change it.”
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