Hog Lagoons

A Policy Statement Adopted by the House of Delegates, North Carolina Council of Churches, November 9, 2000

The Problem

In less than ten years, North Carolina’s national rank in hog production has catapulted from sixth to second.  This rapid growth has been stimulated by the opening, in 1991, of the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse, located in Bladen County.  Much of the growth in hog production is concentrated in the five surrounding counties. In the raising, butchering, processing, transporting and marketing of hogs, a livelihood has been provided for thousands of persons, and additional nutritious meat products have become available for the people of our nation and abroad. However, when the slaughterhouse began operating, the state was unprepared for this exponential growth and lacked a regulatory program for factory farms. Counties could not direct the growth since a 1991 amendment to state zoning law prohibited counties from exercising their zoning authority over factory farms.

At the heart of the problem is the question of what to do with the waste produced by the state’s 10 million hogs, waste which is currently stored in open-air lagoons and sprayed onto surrounding fields.[1] This is not a small problem. It is estimated that North Carolina’s 10 million hogs produce 19 million tons of waste (i.e., feces and urine) a year, or over 50,000 tons every single day.[2] One hog produces about five times as much waste as does one person, so North Carolina’s hogs are producing as much as all the people in California and New York combined.

Large-scale hog operations, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), have caused environmental, public health, and socioeconomic problems in the state. For example, manure discharge from lagoons and sprayfields has contaminated the rivers, streams, and estuaries in the ecologically sensitive coastal plains of North Carolina. Millions of pounds of airborne pollution are released into the air each year from hog confinement houses, lagoons, and sprayfields.[3] Studies show that the contaminated water supplies and air emissions from hog operations adversely affect the health of those who live in the surrounding neighborhoods, causing respiratory problems, exposure to disease-causing bacteria, and psychological problems.[4]

Large-scale hog operations also take an economic and social toll on rural communities.[5] The greatest concentration of hog operations lies in areas with both high poverty and a high percentage of nonwhites. Large-scale swine operations with their accompanying lagoons, sprayfields, and strong odors lower property values and make recruiting cleaner forms of industry extremely difficult.

In addition, the traditional independent family farmer is becoming a thing of the past, as large-scale corporate hog operations (called “integrators”) force third- and fourth-generation farmers to go out of business.  Typically, the integrator owns the hogs, provides the feed, and controls the method of operation, while the grower raises the hogs, pays the production cost, and bears the responsibility of managing the operation’s lagoons and sprayfields.

In 1997, the North Carolina legislature placed a two-year moratorium on the construction or expansion of hog farms in North Carolina. However, this measure did nothing to address the hog waste discharge problems arising from the more than 10 million hogs in existing operations. Already an agricultural, environmental and rural community crisis, problems related to the swine industry in North Carolina became a national issue when Hurricanes Irene, Dennis, and Floyd swept through the eastern part of the state in September 1999. Millions of gallons of untreated waste poured into the floodwaters.  Thousands of hogs drowned. Rivers, streams, and groundwater were contaminated, and the agricultural economy, which was already in poor condition, suffered a severe setback.

In April 1999, Governor Jim Hunt called for a Lagoon and Sprayfield Phase-out Plan that would eliminate swine waste lagoons within 10 years. “I just think this is something that’s not good for North Carolina, something that needs to change,” Hunt was quoted as saying at the time.[6] More than a year later, little action has taken place. As reported in the August 16, 2000, News and Observer, “A plan to start cleaning up abandoned lagoons–one of the least controversial parts of Hunt’s package–failed to attract a sponsor in the General Assembly this summer. A proposal to force the worst polluting farms to close their lagoons was scaled back to a policy targeting the biggest polluters for more inspections and enforcement.”  Regulations to cut swine farms’ ammonia emissions, considered one of the biggest pollution threats, are scheduled to be taken up by a state rule-making panel this fall, but officials do not know how much farmers should be required to reduce emissions.

The 2001 General Assembly will be required to consider an extension of the hog moratorium, which is scheduled to expire in July. In addition, it will be incumbent upon the next attorney general to ensure that a recent settlement between the state and Smithfield Foods is upheld. Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer and processor, recently agreed to invest $15 million over the next five years to develop waste treatment technologies. The agreement also calls for Smithfield to spend $50 million for wetlands protection, lagoon remediation, development of environmental management plans, and improved monitoring. Improvements must also be coordinated at contract operations.

In the meantime, questions remain about the state’s willingness and ability to enforce penalties for discharge violations that have been committed by the hog industry.  There are 3,800 active lagoons and 1,142 inactive lagoons and little assurance that the handful of state inspectors have the resources and ability to ensure that lagoons are maintained at their proper levels. Questions also remain in the minds of rural citizens who live in close proximity to hog operations about the safety of their drinking water, whether the fish in neighboring streams are safe to eat, and whether the air is safe to breathe.

Considerations for the Faith Community

When God created the earth, God looked at everything that was made and declared it to be very good (Genesis 1).  The community of faith is constantly called by God to take care of creation, to act as good stewards of the earth and to ensure that present and future generations may live on it and enjoy its fruit.  Thus, we are called upon to reconcile ourselves to the care of creation, to celebrate God’s great gift of creation, and to seek peace rooted in justice in the midst of a broken and sinful world.

Caring for creation entails fostering a vision of intentional community that seeks “the well-being of all people and all creation.”[7] This ecumenical worldview is based on belief in: 1) the transcending sovereign love of God for all creation and the incarnation of that love in the public ministry of Jesus Christ, who announced such good news to the oppressed, 2) the unity of creation and the equality of all races and peoples, 3) the dignity of humans as children of God, and 4) the church’s mission to do justice, defend creation and make peace, in response to God’s action in natural and human history.[8]

For the community of faith, applying this model to such issues as the risks posed by the large-scale swine industry in North Carolina entails a commitment to the following faith values:

A. Preservation of the Environment. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).  Peace rooted in justice requires a reverence for all of life and a commitment to the long-term sustainability of natural resources.  Therefore, as stewards of God’s earth, the community of faith must actively seek to protect the land, air, and water from the environmental risks posed by the enormous amount of waste produced by the millions of hogs that are located in the ecologically sensitive coastal plains of eastern North Carolina.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd, when millions of gallons of untreated waste flowed from hog lagoons, we must seek safer and more environmentally sound alternatives to the standard lagoon and sprayfield approach to disposing waste.

B. Liberation and Empowerment. “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). “Peace rooted in justice requires the participation of vulnerable and marginalized groups, seeking to promote justice and peace, in those mechanisms capable of redressing the causes and consequences of injustice and oppression.”[9] Faith communities must hear the cries of the poor and nonwhite communities and be a voice for those who often have no voice of their own–working to address environmental justice concerns about the production and processing of pork in North Carolina.  In addition, the community of faith must address public health problems stemming from contaminated air and water supplies. We must have a better understanding of the health effects of intensive livestock operations and work to protect the public health of all members of the community.

C.  Economic Accountability. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine and you are but strangers and guests who have become my tenants” (Leviticus 25:23). “Peace rooted in justice requires increased moral, ethical and legal accountability at all levels from governments, financial institutions, multilateral organizations, transnational corporations and all other economic actors to seek a just, participatory and sustainable economic order for the welfare and well-being of all people and creation.”[10] The community of faith must call all members of society to consider how food is produced, how the land is cared for, and who benefits most from the modern agricultural system. Traditional family farming is steadily becoming a thing of the past as farmland is consolidated in the hands of a few and rural communities continue to dwindle. People of faith must be good stewards of the Earth, by healing the broken relationships between those who work the fields and those who market the yields, and by allowing small farmers to receive a fair return on their productive efforts.

D.  Legal Accountability. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). “Peace rooted in justice requires a comprehensive legal system, capable of change as conditions require, in order to prevent and resolve conflicts, to protect rights, to hold accountable those who disturb peace and violate . . . law, and to provide fair and effective review and enforcement mechanisms.”[11] The community of faith must assure that the hog industry is held accountable for discharge violations by calling for a strict enforcement of federal and state clean air and clean water regulations.  In addition, the pork industry must assume greater responsibility and liability for cleaning-up lagoons and complying with environmental laws.

Legislative and Policy Recommendations for 2001

The 1997 North Carolina General Assembly directed the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to develop a plan to phase out the use of lagoons and sprayfield systems as the primary method of disposing of hog wastes and to phase in the use of suitable alternative systems. In 1999, Governor Hunt called for the implementation of such a plan.

During the upcoming legislative session, state lawmakers should take the following measures in order to ensure the implementation of a phase-out of lagoons and sprayfields:[12]

1.  Prevent problems from getting worse by:

a.  improving compliance with existing laws through better enforcement,
b.  addressing growing threats associated with abandoned lagoons, and
c.  holding owners of animals responsible for any environmental violations.

2. Improve waste management systems for existing operations by phasing out the use of anaerobic lagoons and sprayfields.

3.  Prohibit new growth in the state’s swine population unless and until:

a.  a phase-out for existing operations is well underway and being implemented,
b.  alternative technologies to protect the environment are required for new systems, and
c.  adequate siting requirements are in place to protect neighbors and communities.

The ultimate environmental objectives of the phase-out plan should be the following:

  • Eliminate atmospheric emission of undesirable gases (e.g. unacceptable odor, ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide).
  • Eliminate waste discharge beyond the bounds of hog operations by way of groundwater contamination or sprayfield runoff.
  • Ensure that technology is not easily susceptible to failure due to chronic rain, mismanagement, or human error.
  • Reduce the net transport of nutrients into a river basin.
  • Utilize “waste” as a resource to recoup additional treatment costs. Animal feed, energy, dry fertilizer, and composted soil represent examples of critically needed and economically viable products.

We commend North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University and other public and private agencies that are providing research and resources toward the solution of the problems related to hog lagoons, and to enhancing the potential new resources available from these processes.

[1] There are also questions about the handling of wastes from the poultry and cattle industries.  These operations, however, do not generally use lagoons and sprayfields.  Because of this and because of the quantities of waste generated, there is greater immediacy about the need to deal with hog lagoons.
[2] North Carolina Environmental Defense, http://www.hogwatch.org
[3] Environmental Defense: “Hog Lagoons: Pitting Pork Against Public Health and Environment”. NC Environmental Defense: Raleigh, NC, June 1999, p.3.
[4] Steve Wing, Dana Cole and Gary Grant, “Environmental Injustice in North Carolina’s Hog Industry”, Environmental Health Perspectives: Volume 108, Number 3, March 2000.
[5] “Understanding the Impacts of Large-Scale Swine Production”: Proceedings from an Interdisciplinary Scientific Workshop. Des Moines, Iowa, June 29-30, 1995.
[6] James Eli Shaffer, The News and Observer. August 16, 2000.
[7] Ecumenical Witness for Peace, Justice, and Sustainability: A Paper Offered to the Millennium Peace Summit, August 28-31, 2000, United Nations.  National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, p. 1.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., p. 3.
[10] Ibid., p. 2.
[11] Ibid., p. 3.
[12] “General Principles of a Plan to Phase Out the Use of Anaerobic Lagoons and Sprayfields,” http://www.hogwatch.org.  Conservation groups, including Environmental Defense, the Sierra Club, and the Southern Environmental Law Center, have worked to develop the components of a lagoon and sprayfield phase-out plan.

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