by Joel Porter
Industrial-scale hog farming is big business in North Carolina. But factory farming also comes with a major cost. Industrial livestock facilities can leak untreated pig waste into the air and water, posing huge health risks for nearby communities. And these operations are heavily concentrated in rural, BIPOC communities in eastern North Carolina, where they’re fueling an environmental justice crisis.
As we’ve said before, North Carolina has a pig poop problem.
Industrial-scale animal operations generate a tremendous amount of feces and waste, often storing thousands of gallons of pig waste in open-air cesspits. This waste is then sprayed on croplands as a fertilizer, a practice livestock operators call the “lagoon-and-sprayfield system.”
Each time crops are sprayed in this way, as many as 200 gallons of animal urine and fecal matter are propelled through the air each minute. The waste frequently winds up on nearby houses, contaminates the surrounding air, and can be smelled for miles around.
In eastern North Carolina, the vast majority of these dirty factory farms are located in financially disadvantaged communities of color with a long history of environmental injustice. In fact, Duplin and Sampson Counties have more industrial hog operations than anywhere else in America. Some families have lived with air and drinking water contaminated by pig waste for generations.
And while numerous lawsuits over the years have sought to provide justice to the neighbors and communities surrounding these facilities, none have succeeded in stopping the practice thus far.
To keep this conversation going, CleanAIRE NC is launching a book club, starting with Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial. An eye-opening new book from author Corban Addison, Wastelands takes a hard look at the factory livestock industry and its impacts on communities in eastern NC.
If you’re interested in having meaningful conversations exploring environmental justice and climate change, sign up to join the CleanAIRE NC Book club at the link below.
Over the past few years, corporate hog farms have attempted to “solve” the problems in this system by monetizing their livestock waste, covering their cesspits with tarps to capture methane and piping it to market as an energy source. The methane captured by this process is commonly referred to as “biomethane” or “biogas.”
But rather than solving the problem, this new “anaerobic digester” system only exacerbates it. Research by Dr. Emily Grubert at Georgia Tech shows these projects can leak as much as 15% of the methane they produce, adding a potent fuel to the climate crisis. Dr. Grubert also found that most capturable methane from digestion systems is too dirty to be used as energy directly and must therefore be “flared,” resulting in more CO2 emissions. And a more recent report out of the UK found that biomethane projects may be leaking at an even larger scale.
Digestion systems can also pollute the air and water with ammonia, an irritant that can burn the skin, mouth, throat, lungs, or eyes. Ammonia is also a precursor to particulate matter, which can exacerbate asthma or other respiratory illnesses. And this process can amplify nitrate levels in the digestate (the fecal and urine matter); nitrates seeping out into the groundwater will quickly contaminate a community’s drinking water.
Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance
The recent gut-wrenching story out of White Oak Farms provides a chilling example of this threat. A Wayne County digestion system leaked at least 37,000 gallons of slime made up of hog waste, animal carcasses, and rotten deli meat. The leak continued to seep into the surrounding watershed for weeks, causing severe health problems.
Fortunately, CleanAIRE NC and our partners won a major legal settlement just last year against the region’s largest biogas producer, AlignRNG. That victory set new limits on air pollution coming from a proposed Sampson County biogas plant, and strengthened the facility’s monitoring and reporting system for methane leaks.
But even this victory did not solve the underlying problem: the lagoon-and-sprayfield system is still in operation. In fact, the state of North Carolina has actually made it easier to cap cesspits by issuing a general permit to construct these anaerobic digestors, threatening to entrench this harmful waste management system.
And the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) presents a new policy hurdle we will have to overcome by including $1.96 billion for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). REAP provides loans and grants for energy projects—including biomethane projects. In addition to REAP, the IRA includes substantial tax credits, loans, and other incentives that could propagate digesters across our state.
With all of this federal money coming down the pike, we may eventually see some new technologies that actually solve the industrial agriculture waste problem. But without continuous monitoring and the proper regulatory framework to ensure these benefits materialize, we could be making an already bad problem much worse in parts of the state that can’t afford it.
Nobody deserves to live with hog waste in their air and drinking water. The question becomes, what can we do about it?
One of our best available solutions may seem simple but is surprisingly effective: talk about the problem with your friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. By raising awareness of these harmful practices, we can challenge the false industry narrative that factory farms are essential for providing us with food and good-paying jobs.
Consumer choice can play a large role in how our food is produced. A community-supported agriculture (CSA) program is a great option if you have one near you. You use USDA’s local food directory to find a list of CSAs in your area.
We can also choose to shop smart at the grocery store by checking how our meat is sourced, to make sure our dollars go to farmers using clean, sustainable livestock practices. Check out Eat Well Guide’s curated directory of farms (along with restaurants and other businesses) that produce food using “techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare.”
We will also clearly need stronger protections for our air, water, and community health at the policy level. Every one of us can contact our elected representatives about the importance of improving air quality monitoring and industry transparency surrounding these facilities.
While state-operated air monitors are needed, we can’t wait around for government action. CleanAIRE NC operates a network of small, affordable air sensors that allow volunteer citizen scientists to shine a light on local air quality.
Hog waste lagoons are bad for our health, bad for our environment, and bad for small farmers. It’s time we call out industry claims on their benefits for what they are: hogwash.