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Ponds of Pig Shit Are Making People In North Carolina Really Sick

The federal government is investigating whether state regulators have violated the civil rights of African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, who are disproportionately suffering from air and water pollution from hog farms.
Photo by Jeff Roberson/AP

The swine is fine in North Carolina, where peppery, vinegar-based barbecue is a state trademark.

But for the people who live around the massive hog farms that have made the state the country's second-largest source of pork, it's a different number two that's a chronic problem. North Carolina is home to an estimated 2,055 feedlots, which have built vast lagoons to contain the waste from nearly 10 million pigs.


In Sampson and Duplin counties, near the state's Atlantic coast, Naeema Muhammad told VICE News residents "feel like they have to negotiate with the air."

"They get up in the morning and they crack their door open a little bit to see whether or not the odor's there," said Muhammad, who leads the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. "If the odor's not there, they rush outside to try to get done what they need to so they can get back in before the odor comes."

Children run home from their bus stops and play indoors, and no one hangs clothes outside to dry anymore, she said: "If the odor comes, it gets into the clothing, and you have re-do your laundry to get the odor out of your clothes."

Related: In defiance of Congress, nutritional panel says eating meat damages environment

The hog industry came to North Carolina in a big way in the 1980s and 1990s, with more and more animals grown by fewer and fewer farms. The industry now supports an estimated 24,000 jobs, mostly in the eastern part of the state.

But figuring out how to deal with the putrid ponds of pig poop that come with it has been a perpetual headache — sometimes a literal one for people in Duplin and Sampson counties, the two top hog-producing counties in the United States.

"That's an open pit the size of football field or larger, and in some places you've got two to three of those on one farm," Devon Hall told VICE News from Warsaw, in Duplin County.


"And then you've got your spray fields where at certain times that liquid waste is sprayed on a field. That field might be adjacent to your property or your home. And what can I say? If they're spraying hog waste on their property, which is maybe 200 feet from my property line - what can I say?" said Hall, project manager for the nonprofit Rural Empowerment Association for Community Health.

A major lagoon breach spilled more than 25 million gallons of the stuff into the New River in 1995. When Hurricane Floyd hit the state in 1999, the resulting flooding dumped millions more gallons into waterways in the eastern part of the state.

And a recent study by the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Johns Hopkins University found high levels of bacteria from pigs in water samples around confined feeding operations; more than 60 percent of samples had higher levels of one pig-specific microbe than state or federal regulations allow.

Hall said people in Duplin County don't want to run off the farms and the jobs they provide. "But when it comes to the actual farms and the away that they dispose of their waste on these farms, there's got to be a better way," he said.

'People started seeing the changes, documenting the changes, reporting the changes, and nothing changed.'

The state instituted reforms in the 1990s and early 2000s and regularly revises its "general permit" — the framework for regulating hog farms. But the changes have been too weak to satisfy representatives of the communities around those farms, which are heavily African-American, Latino, or Native American.


They have taken their complaints to the federal government and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now investigating whether the failure of state regulators to tighten permits and crack down on violators amounts to discrimination against the state's minorities.

"People say, 'Enough is enough. We've got to get some federal oversight,'" said Marianne Engelman Lado, the attorney who filed a complaint with the EPA on behalf of environmental activists in the state. "We've known for years there needs to be a greater level of protection, and it's long overdue for change."

Drew Elliot, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), told VICE News that the department "will provide any information the agency needs during that process."

In a letter sent last week, the EPA said it would open an investigation but noted that the move "in no way amounts to a decision on the merits."

Meanwhile, the poultry industry, which also produces tons of chicken and turkey waste, has followed the hog farms into the state, Lado said.

Around the feedlots, Muhammad said people complained of headaches, burning eyes and runny noses, respiratory illnesses, and stress. Those who drew water from shallow wells complained of its bad smell and taste, and air samples captured higher foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide in the air.

"This has been on everybody's radar screen since the industry started coming into the state," Muhammad said. "People started seeing the changes, documenting the changes, reporting the changes, and nothing changed."


Meanwhile, she said, students at UNC's public health school matched permits issued by DENR to addresses on a map. The sites were all located in minority communities, "and you can see that on a map without a doubt."

The EPA has 180 days to make a preliminary finding about whether the DENR has discriminated against the communities, Lado told VICE News. If so, they'll take their findings to DENR and start discussing how to remedy the issue. If the state agency doesn't go along, the feds could withhold money that supports environmental protection programs in the state — but that's something no one wants to happen, she said.

"If anything, we all want more resources to flow into the state, particularly for environmental protection," Lado said.

Related: The shitty secret behind all those July 4th hot dogs

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl