North Carolina has a big problem, and it isn’t unsweetened tea. Hog waste lagoons—smelly, sludgy pools of hog feces—may be unfamiliar to most, but to the residents who live near them, they’re an everyday reality. The lagoons pose a serious hazard to the environment, economy, and health of nearby North Carolinians.
The lagoons started as a means of waste disposal. In the late 20th century, American animal agriculture saw a revolutionary shift. The idealistic, family-owned farms of the past morphed into gargantuan facilities called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). These “factory farms” host an extraordinarily great number of animals, and in turn produce an extraordinarily great amount of waste – 15.5 million tons a year, to be exact. Whereas smaller farms can recycle animal waste and use it as a fertilizer, there is simply too much feces on factory farms for this to be an effective method of disposal. In North Carolina, hog farmers typically dump their farm’s waste into large ditches, forming “lagoons” of feces. In spite of its conveniency, this “solution” has long-term ramifications for the environment and for local communities.
Now, there are nearly 4000 lagoons in North Carolina, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. These oversized pools of pig feces carry dozens of toxic chemicals, including ammonia and nitrogen oxides. These chemicals, which are classified as hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), pose significant health risks when inhaled or consumed. Unfortunately, HAPs are blown into neighboring communities with the wind and nitrates from the lagoons seep into drinking water, polluting the environment and endangering the health of local residents. Residents living near these sites report an increased occurrence of diarrhea, asthma, and miscarriage, along with elevated risk for numerous respiratory and immunological diseases. The toll on mental health should not be underestimated, either, since living among the perpetual odor of manure can cause a sense of despair and hopelessness.
Local residents are not the only ones affected by the lagoons’ toxicity. In times of flooding, the lagoons overflow and the chemicals are carried into nearby rivers, streams, and tributaries. As the waters mix, massive amounts of pollutants enter the water. The upset in balance kills marine life and upsets the local ecosystem. During Hurricane Floyd in 1999, hog waste lagoon flooding caused a 350-square mile dead zone in one of the United State’s largest estuaries, leaving thousands of pig carcasses strewn across eastern North Carolina. CAFO operators and NC legislators can’t seem to learn; in 2015, Hurricane Matthew flooded another 15 lagoons, adding to the already-present pollution. Beyond devastating environmental harm, the dirty water left after flooding can seep into the groundwater supply, contaminating the drinking water of over half of North Carolinians.
In the 1990s, the state established a minimum distance required between hog waste lagoons and residential areas as well as property lines. In 1997, a moratorium was passed in the North Carolina legislature, prohibiting the creation of additional hog waste lagoons. This, however, has done nothing to get rid of existing lagoons, and North Carolina still has the most relaxed regulatory standards for hog farms in the world. In fact, this lax stance is what has enabled North Carolina to become the leading producer of pork products in the Nation, an economic advantage that CAFOs use to keep lawmakers in their pocket. No amount of revenue, though, makes up for factory farms’ infringement on human rights.
In late 2014, three groups filed federal complaints to the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming that CAFOs violate the civil rights of surrounding community residents and are a form of environmental racism. Lawmakers would never subject wealthier, whiter communities to the harm that lagoons bring, so why do they allow CAFOs to continue such a practice? Steven Wing, and epidemiologist at UNC, wrote of the hog lagoons victims, “These communities are disproportionately composed of low-income people of color who have fewer protections from environmental hazards, less ability to leave their homes during high exposure periods and less access to medical and clinical services, than residents of higher-income communities.”
Unfortunately, the federal complaints did not succeed in ridding coastal North Carolina of the lagoons, and the problem persists today. Even worse, in 2015, North Carolina passed an “ag-gag” law, making it illegal for CAFO workers to document what they were required to do at work. Republican lawmakers are particularly adamant to keep CAFO regulations light, despite growing public pushback. There is hope though. The political climate of North Carolina is changing, though, and perhaps anti-CAFO lawmakers will soon have enough sway to rid our beautiful state of hog waste lagoons. In fact, at the beginning of 2017, the EPA publicly stated that they were “deeply concerned” about the impacts the lagoons have on nearby residents. With the continued efforts of voters, anti-CAFO legislators, and activists, perhaps the lagoons can become another part of North Carolina’s storied past.