Remember how our river smelled in the weeks following Hurricane Florence? I do. Returning home after a week of sheltering inland, I walked to the banks of the Cape Fear, swift and swollen, full of debris. Before I could see the river, I could smell it; the scent crawled through the streets and festered in our nasal canals. The storm had flooded 36 hog lagoons and breached several more, sending untold amounts of untreated pig urine and feces racing toward the river we all drink from. Wilmington was an open sewer.
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Every five years, the state Department of Environmental Quality revises their general permit for swine, a sort of operating license which governs how the hog production facilities in NC dispose of waste products. After a round of revisions and proposed changes to the existing permit, they open the new draft up for public comment. It is where I found myself with 20 other people—most from Cape Fear River Watch—last Tuesday, bouncing along in a bus headed toward James Sprunt Community College in Kenansville, NC.
The number of hogs in the eastern third of North Carolina rivals the number of humans in the entire state at nearly 10 million. The animals produce extravagant amounts of waste; the quantity of urine and feces produced by NC hogs every year is the nearly-unfathomable number of 9.5 billion gallons. To get an idea of just how much that is, consider the following:
Off exit 385 on I-40 is a gated community of golf courses and mansions, roughly the size of Wrightsville Beach, called River Landing. It was built by a man named Wendell Murphy, a hog farmer and state senator from 1988 to 1992. He mostly is responsible for the messy situation we’re in, as during his time in Raleigh he wrote legislation that eased regulations on hog farming. The money he made by doing so helped fund River Landing, as well as many properties at Wrightsville Beach and a couple of very large boats. Earlier in the year, Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County earmarked $830,000 in the state budget to, in some weird ironic turn of fate, repair the wealthy and private community’s sewage pumping station, which has been backflowing into ponds on the golf courses.
Instead, if we used the money to seal up the gate and extend the walls around River Landing skyward, and started pumping in the waste produced by NC hogs (as to whether Mr. Murphy and Mr. Dixon were still inside at this point, I’ll let the reader imagine), the walls would need to be just over 17 feet high to contain it all.
Of course, we can’t do that because River Landing is still perched on the Cape Fear River. So, while it would be incredibly satisfying, it wouldn’t solve our original problem—namely that all this waste is now stored, untreated, in fragrant pink lagoons that dot the flood-prone coastal plain, and lurk frightfully near the creeks and rivers we depend on for clean water. When the lagoons fill up, the waste is sprayed on other crops as fertilizer, where just about half of it gets absorbed. The other half becomes runoff when it rains; the nutrients from the leftover waste enter our watershed and cause eutrophication, algae blooms (like the one in Lake Erie), and fish kills. Far too often, the aerosolized waste particles end up drifting over to the farm’s neighbors, who are typically from minority or economically underprivileged communities.
The reason all this waste is stored in such a manner is because it is cheap to do so. Better technology exists; several proven concepts easily can be retrofitted to NC hog farms, which process the waste more, store it in impermeable tanks, separate solids from liquids, and treat it the same as human waste. The industry claims such methods are “too expensive.”
Yet, the Chinese-owned corporation Smithfield Foods—which owns the hogs, feed and profit but, cleverly, not the land or the waste, per their contract with farm operators—made a record operating profit of $447 million in the first half of 2016. More recent numbers are not available.
“We no longer make financial information available to the public,” according to Smithfield’s website. However, the WH Group, who purchased Smithfield in 2013 for $7.1 billion in the then-largest takeover of an American company by a Chinese one, posted profits of $514 million for the first half of 2018. Clearly, the money exists to make these upgrades to the waste management systems.
As the miles race by, I lean against the window and think of social philosopher John Rawls, who introduced in his 1971 work “A Theory of Justice” the idea of justice as fairness—the hope for social institutions that won’t confer lifelong advantages on some persons at the expense of others. Is it fair billionaires in China and men like Wendell Murphy get to profit off the suffering of local communities, free of consequences?
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Wendell Murphy is not here tonight, in these steep auditorium hard-backed plastic chairs. Neither is Wan Long, the billionaire CEO of the WH Group. The room is full of cherry-cheeked cackling farmers and industry workers, sporting “Smithfield” and “FARM STRONG” hats. The environmentalists I rode up with are grim-lipped and serious with knowledge of what is at stake. The front two rows are mostly older African-Americans. Several of them arrived on the only other bus here, which brought a delegation from the town of Sandyfield, halfway to Elizabethtown up 87 from Wilmington. And Jimmy Dixon is here, wearing a creased black suit and red tie, as is Senator Harper Peterson, whose tie is blue.
The public comments begin. I watch the crowd, seeing who claps after who speaks. The black folks up front and the environmentalists seem to be mostly on the same page; the farmers are, as expected, totally homogeneous. I start a tally, counting who speaks for hogs and who speaks against them. The opening salvo is entirely pro-pig: The first man says his “way of life is under attack” and proceeds to define the word “oligarchy.” Another denounces “baseless attacks from activist groups.” One woman, who said she “grew up on the water” and has been a pig farmer for 42 years, mentions no farmers want to sacrifice anyone downstream to make a dollar. But that’s exactly what’s happening.
They rail against the additional paperwork the new rules would create, and claim the current permit is good enough. They mention everyone cares for safety of water, and all of their children are drinking it, too.
When the environmentalists speak, the farmers stare and shake their heads. They ask for transparency—as of now, the public doesn’t have access to records which show permit compliance. The DEQ only reviews the (often handwritten) records once per year.
“This information should not be privileged, when the burden is shared,” says Ashley Johnson of the Environmental Justice Network. “We need to move beyond what exists to what is possible.”
Since we have technology to better monitor and control the lagoons, questions turn toward, “Why aren’t we using it? And why aren’t we holding the people who pollute our environment accountable for their waste?”
“We should require these corporations to be good neighbors,” points out Cape Fear River Watch Deputy Director Dana Sargent. They asked for stronger pollution controls and more environmental monitoring of groundwater, and reminded DEQ that people of color or financially underprivileged communities are more likely to be located in the immediate vicinity of the farms. The fact was disputed by Rep. Jimmy Dixon later, but was testified against by the first-hand experience of the African-Americans who live nearby.
One man named Rick Dove pointed out the fact that three groups may be present in one room, but, really, we were all one. We were all on the receiving end of the actions of a multi-billion-dollar Chinese corporation.
“Where are the people with the money to solve this problem?” he posited. “They’re not here. The environment in North Carolina can’t handle this. As long as lagoons are in use, there will never be peace.
Back on the bus, exhausted, I look through my scribbled notes. My tally landed at 51 speakers overall, 17 of whom were pro-pig, 29 were against. Yet, the room leaned slightly on the side of farmers in general population.
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On the Thursday after, Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette and Cape Fear River Watch’s Patrick Connell and I head to out to get a birds-eye view of the hog farms. At the Oak Island airport, a pilot greets us in the lobby, visibly shaking his head. “Not looking good,” he says. “The ceiling is too low.”
My grandfather, a pilot himself, always said there were old pilots, and there were bold pilots, but there were no old bold pilots. So wanting to grow old ourselves, we trust the pilot’s judgment.
As a consolation prize, Kemp and Patrick and I drive the back roads of Brunswick County to investigate one of the Smithfield-owned farms. There is a row of low, silver buildings, surrounded by fields with yellow spools of black hose, used to spray the waste; the lagoons themselves lie over a low birm, on which a few birds perch. I crack my window to sniff the air and immediately regret it. It is acrid with unprocessed waste—eye-wateringly rancid. It is an assaulting odor.
Remember the river after the storm? Welp, imagine something far worse—more concentrated, undiluted. “Look at the runoff pattern,” Kemp says, pointing toward the fields which drain into a creek. Little rivulets of prior drainage are engraved, spiderweb-like, in the yellow dirt. I follow the creek back to the wetlands we just drove through, where, as we slowed down to approach the farm, a yellow box turtle slid into the water, startled by our arrival. The water here will join Town Creek and eventually the Cape Fear.
Upstream of us, all across Eastern NC, this scene, this smell is so common, it’s unremarkable. The smell of money, is how the scent is usually described, but, no, I would describe it differently. There’s a pungent whiff of wealthy Chinese corporations being the worst kind of neighbors—the kind who don’t care. The strong smell of greed is mixed with a bouquet of not being held accountable by our state government. Among it is a tinge of sickness and decay that comes as a result: It’s the incorrigible odor of injustice.
Now is the time to make your voice heard. E-mail comments to email@example.com, or write to Animal Feeding Operations, 1636 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC, 27699. The comment period closes on updating the permits on March 4, 2019.