In eastern North Carolina, citizens and students rise up for environmental justice
Last month, about 150 people converged on Raleigh for the pinnacle of a 51-hour hog vigil. Busloads full of children and old-timers from Halifax, Duplin, Sampson, and Bladen counties, where the stench of hog poop is a way of life. Joining them were students and residents from 28 other counties in North Carolina.
All across the lawn of the state capital, our words sprayed out in a powerful arc like the liquid hog waste that routinely sprays land in eastern North Carolina. We hoped to saturate the ground, the air, and the people with disgust. Gov. Mike Easley’s (D) 1999 campaign promise to get rid of all hog lagoons in the state within five years has yet be delivered. The protesters intended to make sure he doesn’t forget it.
They even serenaded him with a pungent ditty:
Governor Easley he did say
In 5 years lagoons go away
Easley’s nose oh it did grow, for lying like Pinocchio
Easley, did poop poo right on me.
Few places in the world have been pooped on more than Eastern North Carolina in the past 20 years. As jobs in textiles and tobacco moved out over the past few decades, the hog industry moved in, bringing with it the source of the poop: 10 million hogs on 2,300 farms, producing about 19 million tons of waste per year. This waste is stored in huge, open pits called lagoons and then sprayed on surrounding fields, which causes the stench to waft for miles around.
Owing to the low water table of the coastal plain, the store and spray method is often affected by flooding, which contaminates the water supply. The lagoons are located disproportionately in low income, African-American communities, where few other jobs are available.
Steve Wing, a professor of Epidemiology at the UNC School of Public Health, spoke at the Hog Vigil press conference about an air-quality study he conducted. During the study, air pollutant monitors were placed in communities near hog farms, and local residents were asked to record the changes in smell and irritating health effects. He found that high air pollution levels measured by the monitors corresponded with odor reports from local residents.
In other words, despite hog-industry claims to the contrary, when it stinks outside, the air is toxic. Additional analysis of the health effects is currently underway.
Gary Grant, spokesperson for the Concerned Citizens of Tillery, said they had hoped to bring hog waste to the event to share the stench with state legislators, but that their permit prevented them from doing so. “Out there, they call it organic fertilizer,” he said, speaking of the state government’s legal classification of hog waste. “But as soon as we try to bring it to Raleigh, they call it toxic waste.”
One of the highlights of the afternoon was a “fresh air” birthday party for children who often do not have birthday parties outside due to the threat of debilitating odors blowing over from nearby hog farms. As we stood talking with an elderly black man named Liam from Tillery, N.C., we realized that the tragedy of pollution from hog waste is merely another abstract issue of concern for us as white, middle-class college students. For he and for his grandchildren, however, it is an injustice that prevents them from having outdoor birthday parties, working in their gardens, or even hanging their clothes out to dry.
We were relieved to find out that the hot dogs served at the birthday party came from pigs raised on pasture by a local farmer. Pollution of the water and air are the results of our industrial attempts to raise many pigs in one place. When pigs are allowed to spread out on pasture, their manure really does act as an organic fertilizer.
Instead of eliminating the hog lagoons as Easley promised, legislation passed last summer [PDF] allows for the replacement of lagoons that represent “an imminent hazard.” It does not affect a “previous” agreement made between the Attorney General and Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor and owner of almost 2,000 hog farms in North Carolina.
Unfortunately, there is no current legislation attempting to tackle the issue of hog waste. Easley will soon be out of office and the democratic nominee for governor, Bev Purdue, is a recipient of many generous donations from the hog industry. For now, make sure your state representatives know about the environmental injustice happening in Eastern North Carolina, and support producers of local, pasture-raised pork.