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North Carolina’s Black Communities Are Sick of Pig Shit

In North Carolina, environmental groups say factory hog farms' vast lagoons of pig waste are disproportionately affecting poor and minority communities.

by Lauren Rothman
Nov 4 2014, 9:45pm

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The Farnsworths

Today's episode of Fuck, That's Delicious has us craving hot dogs, from the fully-loaded Chicago style to a simple grilled, blistered dog with yellow mustard. When you're hungry for a snappy, juicy frank, it's a bit of an appetite killer to consider exactly what's inside that casing (hint: a bright pink slurry of meat trimmings-based paste bound together with modified food starch), but that's exactly what we did, so you might want to finish your lunch before reading on.

Unless you're buying a kosher-style wiener, the primary meat you'll find in a hot dog is pork. And in part because we Americans love our dogs—during the summer season alone, we eat about 7 billion of them—pork-raising operations have become a massive industry here. The US is the world's second-largest producer of pork, and in 2012 about 113 million Babes were slaughtered both for domestic consumption and for export to countries such as Japan, Mexico, and China.

Unfortunately for the residents of North Carolina, where the massive pork industry employs over 12,000 employees working on more than 2,000 farms, pig farming is some dirty shit—literally. The state's nearly 10 million animals—most of them owned by corporate giant Smithfield Foods—produce a staggering amount of feces, with production from just one animal totaling about 2.5 tons in a year. Across North Carolina, pork producers store the crap—along with the pigs' not-insignificant amounts of urine—in vast, uncovered, stinking "lagoons," then spray the waste on fields, as fertilizer, with high-volume spreaders.

The human health effects caused by this insanely disgusting practice —including asthma attacks, runny eyes and noses, bronchitis, insomnia, and blue baby syndrome—have been well documented by environmental advocacy groups in the state. Now, those groups are alleging that these effects fall disproportionately on residents of North Carolina's African-American, minority, and poor communities, where hog facilities are predominantly located. According to a complaint filed with the EPA by several such groups, "the proportions of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans statewide living within three miles of an industrial swine facility are 1.4, 1.26, and 2.39 times higher than the percentage of non-Hispanic whites, respectively."

Naeema Muhammed, director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, which helped author the complaint, sees that as blatant racism. We talked with her about the dirty business of hog farming in North Carolina.

MUNCHIES: How has the hog industry changed farming in North Carolina? Naeema Muhammad: When Smithfield came in, we had a lot of small family farms. And Smithfield really strong-armed them, and made them think that if they did not go into business with them, they would not be able to get their animals processed anymore. That's how we lost most of our family farms, when they joined up with Smithfield.

Smithfield Foods is the owner of almost 10 million animals—we almost have more animals than we do people in the state of North Carolina. But the animals are not spread out. They're mainly in eastern North Carolina, near communities that are predominantly African American, communities of color, and poor communities.

We call it the avenue of least resistance. We feel like they went where they trusted that citizens had the least amount of economic and political clout to fight them.

How long has the waste created by the hog industries been a problem in the state? Since around 1992, when the industry began coming into North Carolina. It first began coming into the northeast corridor, up in Halifax County, and in that county, black and white citizens, for the first time, banded together to oppose this.

At first, those people thought that economic development was coming, they thought it was a good thing. Until one of these citizens, a white man that lived up in the county, went to a black man in the county who was organizing in his community, and asked him to take a ride with him to show him where these animals would be coming in. And when they got there, what they saw was all this excavation going on, and they were trying to figure out, why is all this excavation there if it was hogs coming. And then they began to understand more that this ground was being dug up to create the cesspools.

They began to understand what this could mean for citizens in the area, and what some of the impacts could possibly be. And they didn't see economic development any more, and they began protesting. And they were able to get their country commissioner, along with the health department, to pass an ordinance that showed the industry that they could come if they wanted to, but there were certain guidelines that they would have to follow. And they were very stringent guidelines, and the industry didn't want to adhere to them.

So we always say, while they were fighting at the front door, the industry turned around and went in the back door, and wound up heavily in the southeastern part of the state. And they went in there unnoticed, and nobody paid attention or understood what was going on.

So you're saying these companies didn't advise the community about what was going to be happening? Not at all, not at all.

How do you think that whiter or wealthier communities would have responded if pig farms had tried to move in there? We had that exact scenario take place prior to them coming into these poor communities. They also tried to come into what's called Pinehurst, North Carolina. And anybody that's familiar with Pinehurst knows that it's a golfing community. And they was like, "You are not gonna put these facilities out here where people gotta be outside." And they fought them.

The health effects of these farming practices on people living in these communities, from high blood pressure to decreased lung capacity, is well documented. But besides those concrete effects, can you talk about how their quality of life is affected and how people in these communities feel about where they live? I've heard people saying that it makes them feel really bad, even though they have no control over it. People are complaining about not being able to sit outside any time they want. They have to redo their laundry all the time, because the odor gets into the clothes. And they talk about their children getting off the school bus and just running inside. You know, children normally get off the school bus and they play across the path, and lollygag. But these children aren't doing that, they're getting off the bus and running inside as fast as they can, because the odor is so bad. We've had reports of children literally throwing up, because they can't tolerate food while the odor is there.

Do you think the discrimination at play here is intentional? Yes, we do. We see it as an intentional move of many industries in this state to locate themselves these predominantly African American and poor communities—whether you're talking about landfills in this state, whether you're talking about confined animal operations, whether you're talking about where they want to put waste treatment plants—if you look at a map of North Carolina, you'll find that all of these industries are sitting in the same type of community. We don't see that as no accident.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

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environmental justice
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