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“You can feel the spray”: Poop lagoons are making life hell for African-Americans in North Carolina

Hurricane Florence flooded many hog waste pits, but the problem has plagued the community for decades.

by Sarah Sax
Oct 17 2018, 5:06pm

Like many who live in the southeastern part of North Carolina, Elsie Herring had to deal with massive flooding from Hurricane Florence that inundated her backyard and even reached the steps of her house. On top of the usual slew of toxic contaminants found in floodwaters, she’s especially worried about one source of pollution that’s made her life hell for the past 20 years: hog waste.

“We don't open the windows because of the odor. You can’t keep it out. We don't cook outside anymore or have family gatherings like we used to,” Herring, 70, told VICE News. “We don’t hang our clothes up to dry. We can’t drink out of shallow wells.”

Herring lives on the border of Pender and Duplin counties, smack in the middle of the densest group of hog farms in the country. North Carolina is home to 9.4 million hogs, which produce around 10 billion gallons of waste annually. That waste — and the health hazards that come along with it — disproportionately affect communities of color. African-Americans are not only more likely to live near the farms but the higher the percentage in a community, the more that likelihood increases, according to a study published in 2014 by Steven Wing, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina.

A few decades ago, families would have raised dozens of hogs on their own land, but pork production in the U.S. now looks quite different.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, since 1990 the number of hog farms have declined by more than 70 percent, but production has risen by more than 30 percent. That means many more animals on way fewer farms. And the overcrowding only exacerbates the animal waste — and the problems that arise trying to get rid of it.

"It feels like rain, but it’s not. It’s hog feces."

In North Carolina, hog feces and urine fall through grated floors and get flushed every few weeks into open-air pits, which can hold around 5 million gallons. The solids sink to the bottom and the liquid — along with antibiotics and bacteria, like fecal coliforms and salmonella — is sprayed onto farmers' fields. While nitrogen in the waste is a useful source of fertilizer, runoff is a leading cause of drinking water contamination in rural America and can cause harmful algae blooms.

“When there is a southerly wind, you can feel the spray hit you. It feels like rain, but it’s not. It’s hog feces,” Herring said. “We are also breathing that stuff in.”

The waste-filled lagoons have created a constant source of environmental pollution during hurricanes, which frequent North Carolina’s coast. Lagoons overflowed or breached in 1996 during Hurricane Fran, in 1998 during Hurricane Bonnie, in 1999 during Hurricane Floyd, in 2016 during Hurricane Matthew, and just last month during Hurricane Florence —33 overflowed.

In 1997, the North Carolina General Assembly placed a moratorium on building hog farms that use these waste pits and spraying methods. But politicians grandfathered-in more than 2,000 farms already using the system.

Multiple peer-reviewed studies published since 2000 have pointed to the negative health effects on residents of living near hog farms, and sampling has even found pig DNA on the walls of residents homes. In 2015, a group of researchers from John Hopkins University looking at surface water near industrial hog farms also found “diffuse and overall poor sanitary quality.”

The most recent study published last month in the North Carolina Medical Journal concluded that North Carolina communities located near these hog industrial facilities had higher infant mortality rates, and general mortality rates linked to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia, among other illnesses.

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Elsie Herring, 70, lives on the border of Pender and Dublin counties, where she says waste from hog farms affects her quality of life.

Those health hazards also disproportionately plague African-Americans. Wing, the professor of epidemiology, started studying hog farms in the late 1990s. He found that the percentage of people of color living within 3 miles of an industrial hog operation is 1.52 times higher than the percentage of non-Hispanic Whites. And the more people of color in a community, the higher that percentage.

In 2014, Herring — and around 500 plaintiffs, the majority of them African-Americans living within a mile of a hog farm — sued the industry in a series of 26 lawsuits. They argue that the side effects of hog farming (like “horrible smells of hog feces, urine, body odor, and corpses; the sight of dead, bloated, and decaying hogs; liquid dripping from passing hog trucks,” according to the suit) has reduced their quality of life. Barbara Gibbs who lives in Duplin County complains of gnats, flies, and constant odors from the neighboring hog facility. Woodell McGowan is “unable to mow his lawn due to large puddles of feces and urine that form on the edge of his property line," according to the suit.

“When you see these lawsuits, the racial dimension becomes clear,” said Devon Hall, director of Dublin County's Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, which has been instrumental in fighting hog lagoons. ”On the one hand, you have the black folks who are being affected, and on the other side, you have the white hog farmers and Smithfield representatives.”

The lawsuit doesn’t target the owners of the farms but instead, the company that owns half of the pigs in North Carolina: Murphy Brown, a subsidiary of Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer. (The company declined to comment on the lawsuit.)

In North Carolina, farmers usually don’t own the hogs they raise. Instead, large companies, like Murphy Brown, own every part of the meat-producing chain, from the genetic material that breeds the most optimal weight-bearing pigs all the way down to the sausage that ends on the consumers’ plates. But the company contracts out the financially riskiest, and arguably dirtiest, part of that process to farmers.

“We aren’t even allowed to be called farmers, because many of us don’t own a single pig,” said Tom Butler, who raises 8,000 hogs for Prestage Farms a few counties over from Duplin. “The companies are technically the farmers. We are more like the farm hands.”

What the farmers do own is the waste. But closing the waste pits can cost upward of $100,000, according to Butler. Even converting to slightly less offensive system, like covering the lagoons with giant tarps to extract methane from the waste, can cost around $300,000 per lagoon. No matter the option, cleaning up is a distant dream for contract farmers, many of whom are still paying off million-dollar loans they took out to construct and run their operations.

“We have a system that doesn’t work," Butler said. He runs one of nine farms that covered their lagoons to extract methane. “The consumers are the ultimate answer. They have to get involved. People that don't live near hog farms, they have to get involved for anything to change.”

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So far, the lawsuits are falling in favor of the residents. In May during the first trial, the plaintiffs won $50 million in damages. In June, a jury awarded the two plaintiffs in the second case $25 million and in August a separate jury awarded plaintiffs in the third case $473 million. Smithfield has more than 20 trials to go and has appealed the first three.

In 2018, North Carolina also finally agreed to increase its water and air quality monitoring and consider where the state issues permits for the lagoons after a coalition of grassroots and environmental organizations filed a complaint with the EPA in 2014 over concerns of racial discrimination.

Cover image: In this photo taken Friday, July 21, 2017, hog waste flows into the waste pond at Everette Murphrey Farm in Farmville, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)