'It’s wrong to stink up other people’s lives': fighting the manure lagoons of North Carolina

Pigs outstripped people in Duplin county long ago - but now the residents are fighting back

Two poles that once hoisted a clothes line stand rusting and unused in Elsie Herring’s back garden in eastern North Carolina. Herring lives next door to a field where pig manure is sprayed and the drifting faecal matter wasn’t kind to her drying clothes.

“The clothes would stink so you’d wash them again and again until they fell apart,” said Herring, whose family has lived in Wallace since her grandfather, a freed slave, purchased land in the 1890s.

Elsie Herring and her dog, Midnight, at her home which has been in her family for generations.
Elsie Herring and her dog, Midnight, at her home which has been in her family for generations. Photograph: Justin Cook/The Guardian

“You stand outside and it feels like it’s raining but then you realise it isn’t rain. It’s animal waste. It takes your breath away. You start gagging, coughing, your pulse increases. All you can do is run for cover.”

For years here in North Carolina - the second largest pork-producing state in the US - the pigs have been outstripping the humans. They currently number around 38 to one in Duplin county, with the impact, say local groups, falling disproportionately heavily on African-Americans, Latinos and native Americans. But in the last few weeks, two court decisions may have tipped momentum in a new direction, awarding compensation and bringing in new penalties for polluters.

The pig farms of North Carolina produce around 10bn gallons of faeces a year, which is more than the volume of waste flushed down toilets by the human population of Germany. The waste falls underneath slatted floorboards and is discharged into murky lagoons that sit beside the barns. There are around 4,000 of these cesspools in North Carolina.

The sludge is broken down and sprayedonto nearby fields. In order to prevent ammonia washing off into water systems, the liquid is sprayed on crops that can, farmers say, soak up a lot of nutrients, such as Bermuda grass. Still, some residents, like Herring, have drinking water wells they’ve had to seal up.

State regulators and the pork industry insist that a rigorous system of permits and inspections ensure that this waste doesn’t spill from lagoons into waterways, or drift in a sprayed mist onto nearby residents.

But in April, a jury in Raleigh awarded $50m in damages to 10 neighbours of the Kinlaw farm in Bladen county, which has three waste lagoons. And that case is just the first in a series of 25 similar claims against various hog operations in North Carolina, with the next to start on 29 May. A study of several of the plaintiffs’ homes by Shane Rogers, a former Environmental Protection Agency engineer, found widespread evidence of pig faecal matter on walls, mailboxes and street signs. A miasma of “offensive and sustained swine manure odours” lingers around the homes, Rogers wrote.

“Things are changing in North Carolina, we’re moving in the right direction for the first time in a while,” said Rick Dove, senior adviser at Waterkeeper Alliance, who has campaigned against the hog facilities for 25 years. “The industry has the choice to either put in proper technology to treat the waste or shut down. If these judgments keep coming in they will face the situation the tobacco industry did and hopefully they don’t want that.”

Animal density

The complaints are targeted at pork producer Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods (owned by Chinese conglomerate WH Group), rather than the individual contracted farmers who are nominally responsible for waste management. Smithfield called the lawsuits “an outrageous attack on animal agriculture, rural North Carolina and thousands of independent family farmers who own and operate contract farms.” It is appealing the Kinlaw case and said it won’t consider settling the remaining litigation until the appeal is decided.

But this opening victory for the anti-hog farm group was swiftly followed by another breakthrough. A civil rights complaint alleging that African Americans, such as Herring, as well as Latinos and native Americans are disproportionately burdened by “grossly inadequate and outdated systems of controlling animal waste” was settled with the state, which agreed to a new regime of water and air monitoring, along with a rejigged system of penalties for polluters.

A study by the University of North Carolina has found that black people and native Americans are around twice as likely to live within three miles of an industrial hog operation than whites. “Anything white people don’t want, they dump on eastern North Carolina,” said Naeema Muhammad, co-director of North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. “It’s a new thing every day, this crap don’t ever stop. But someone is finally holding this industry accountable for the damage it has done.”

But on the other side of the battle, the families who raise the pigs are nonplussed by this view of an industry they still consider rooted in family farming. Thomas (who also works in construction) and Sharon King (a dialysis nurse) raise hogs for Smithfield and hope to pass their hog operation onto one of their four children.

“Farming is a way of life I’ve always known, tobacco used to be the money maker but it’s not now,” Sharon said. “We want our children to know something else than punching a time clock. We feed the world. Bacon comes from people like us and a lot of work goes into getting it onto the shelf. People forget that.”

Thomas and Sharon King, with their son Gage (left) raise hogs for Smithfield and hope to pass their hog operation onto one of their four children.
Thomas and Sharon King, with their son Gage (left) raise hogs for Smithfield and hope to pass their hog operation onto one of their four children. Photograph: Justin Cook/The Guardian

The Kings have a 200ft long tunnel-like barn containing around 2,400 hogs near Wallace. The pigs mill around, occasionally drinking water from metal tubes that dangle into their pens. An automated system pushes a corn and grain-based feed (Smithfield says it no longer uses antibiotics for growth) into troughs, fattening the pigs for around 22 weeks until they reach “market” weight - around 300lbs (136kg).

The swine scatter when the barn door opens but then approach visitors with curiosity, snuffling at the bars that enclose them. Huge fans push air across the pigs, salving the North Carolinian heat and expelling their fragrance out of one end of the barn. Neither the barn nor faecal lagoon are immediately unpleasant to the nose and the Kings maintain they follow state rules around waste storage and disposal.

In a state with a fetish for barbecue and foundational ideas of familial farming, criticism of the industrialisation of hog farming is often met with reflexive, but polite, disagreement.

“People don’t like me talking this way, I don’t get invited to many things any more,” said Don Webb, a former hog farmer turned opponent of the industry. Webb, a former teacher who is 78, gave up his 4,000-strong hog operation after complaints from his neighbours more than 30 years ago and has been tangling with Murphy-Brown and its supporters ever since.

“I got a call a few years ago saying ‘we will kill you, you goddamn nigger-loving son of a bitch’,” said Webb, pulling out a revolver from his truck’s glove box that he said he carries for protection. Webb, a tall man who sports red braces and a baseball cap, purchased around 450 acres he hoped to turned into a campsite and line dancing venue, only for a hog farm to sprout up across the road.

“I can’t use my property the way I’d like to, because of the odour,” he said. “These hog pens aren’t next to country clubs, but we are asked to live in the third-world conditions with hogs and faeces. We are humans, not animals. It’s wrong to stink up other people’s lives. God made it stink so we’d stay away from it.”

Webb said he raised the issue with Wendell Murphy, a farmer turned state representative considered the progenitor of North Carolina’s hog warehouses, with no success. Political support for the industry is now entrenched – a state bill passed last year limits the amount of damages paid to hog farm neighbours, meaning it’s unlikely the $50m in the Kinlaw case will be paid out.

Pig populations

A moratorium on new lagoons was put in place in 1997 and this has slowed the growth in hog farm numbers. Still, more than 2,000 hog facilities remain in the state, with North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality imposing fines for 76 violations over the past five years.

Another complication is the lack of alternatives for the lagoons and field spraying – Smithfield agreed to invest $17m in finding new technologies in 2000 and yet, nearly 20 years on, no single system has been deemed viable as a replacement. In lieu of this, the company points to improvements in waste reduction and schemes that would trap methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from the lagoons and convert it into energy.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that has to be put together all at the same time and we haven’t figured it all out yet,” said John Classon, an expert in agricultural waste at North Carolina State University. “I’ve been working on this for 20 years and I hope things will change before I quit.

“Ultimately, I think Smithfield can do better and producers can do better but society has to bear responsibility. We keep electing people who say they will reduce taxes to almost nothing and reduce regulations on businesses. We are getting what we ask for.”


Oliver Milman in Duplin county, North Carolina

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