For the past two years, the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission has been crafting new rules to require water monitoring at factory hog farms, a significant source of pollution in the state.

But last week, even with concerns growing over the environmental impacts of hog farms, the North Carolina Senate unanimously passed a bill that puts the rules process on hold until 2011 — a display of the mighty political power Boss Hog holds in the state.

The measure now moves to the N.C. House, where its fate is unclear.

The bill’s sponsor was state Sen. Charlie Albertson, the Democratic Caucus secretary who represents eastern North Carolina’s Duplin, Sampson and Lenoir counties, an agricultural center where many of the state’s more than 10 million hogs are raised. In a recent interview with WUNC public radio reporter Laura Leslie, Albertson — a member and former chair of the state Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee — accused the EMC of unfairly picking on hog farmers:

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Water quality problems, again, are not caused by swine farmers … It’s just not happening.

Unfortunately, that’s not true. Agricultural operations, including confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs, are a source of water pollution nationwide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hogs produce enormous amounts of fecal waste — three times as much as humans — that’s stored in giant open-air holding ponds known as “lagoons,” which are vulnerable to leaking. The waste is eventually sprayed onto fields, where the nitrogen converts to nitrates, chemicals that move readily into nearby streams and groundwater. Nitrates have been linked to a blood disorder called methemoglobinemia, which is especially harmful to babies.

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Animals kept in CAFOs are fed a variety of drugs including antibiotics that also present a threat to the environment. Twenty-two states have reported damage to streams and rivers caused by agriculture, with 20% of that attributed specifically to CAFOs, according to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Health problems have also been documented among people living near hog farms.

In its report released in April, the Pew Commission noted that “one of the most serious unintended consequences of industrial food animal production is the growing public health threat of these types of facilities.” 

Overruling the rulemakers

North Carolina, the nation’s second-largest hog producer after Iowa, is among the states that have suffered serious environmental problems from industrial livestock operations, one of several significant sources of nutrient pollution along with municipal wastewater and urban runoff. Contamination from the state’s factory farms has been linked to outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida, a microbe believed to be responsible for fish-killing algal blooms as well as skin irritation and cognitive problems in exposed humans.

In 2007, with concerns mounting over animal waste pollution, North Carolina’s Riverkeepers filed a petition for rulemaking asking the state to consider whether it needed to impose monitoring rules for industrial livestock farms. Current law requires the facilities to undergo two inspections a year, but these are strictly visual checks that involve no environmental sampling.

In May of this year, following a process in which all stakeholders got a chance to be heard through comments and hearings, the EMC proposed rules requiring animal waste management facilities to sample water quality three times a year at three sampling sites to be determined by the state Division of Water Quality.

But that didn’t sit well with Albertson, who sought to kill the rules. He turned to an existing piece of legislation that aimed to nix state regulation of toxic air emissions in certain cases. That bill was changed to prohibit the EMC from adopting any permanent rules at all until 2011 except in a few limited cases, such as an unforeseen public health crisis. There were as many as 10 rules under consideration at the EMC that would have been affected by this version of the bill.

It was that broad rule moratorium that Albertson got approved by the Senate Agriculture and Environment committee — a body that has a history of being sympathetic to agribusiness interests. The committee was once chaired by Wendell Murphy, a hog farmer whose Murphy Family Farms are now part of Smithfield Foods of Virginia, the world’s largest pork producer and processor. During his time in the legislature, Murphy sponsored and helped pass bills that exempted hog farms from local zoning laws and lawsuits and that gave the industry subsidies and tax exemptions. When Murphy retired from the Senate in 1992, he was replaced by Albertson, then a state representative.

When Albertson’s bill was taken up on the Senate floor, several lawmakers with a record of advocating for the environment spoke against the measure. They included state Sen. Dan Clodfelter of Charlotte, who expressed concerns about the bill’s impact on rules the EMC was creating to help his city deal with a serious air quality problem. Clodfelter asked Albertson for a narrowing amendment, which Albertson agreed to provide.

Senate insiders say it’s customary that when a colleague does what you ask as Albertson did, you in turn support his legislation. That’s why even those lawmakers with strong environmental records voted yes on the bill — even though not all of them wanted to kill the hog farm rules.

At Boss Hog’s trough

But other North Carolina senators spoke in praise of Albertson’s bill, with some even accusing the EMC of harboring a “vendetta” against hog farmers.

That lawmakers are so sympathetic to a polluting industry is not altogether surprising considering the enormous clout the corporate agriculture lobby has in North Carolina — influence that’s apparent in Albertson’s record of campaign contributions.

Since 2000 alone, Albertson has received $10,200 from the N.C. Farm Bureau, $8,000 from Smithfield Foods, another $7,250 from the N.C. Pork Council, and $5,000 from the N.C. Poultry Federation, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. He’s also received tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from individual hog and poultry farmers, include E. Marvin Johnson, owner of the House of Raeford turkey farms, hog farmer William H. Prestage of Prestage Farms and Murphy, his Senate predecessor.

Albertson’s hardly alone among North Carolina lawmakers in benefiting from industrial agriculture’s largesse: According to a recent report [pdf] from campaign finance group Democracy North Carolina, the N.C. Farm Bureau contributed a total of $222,150 to state candidates and political parties in the last election alone, and the N.C. Pork Council — which gets funding for its policy advocacy work from a mandatory fee on pork producers — chipping in another $187,000.

Legislative insiders say there’s now an effort underway to keep Albertson’s bill from coming up in the House. However, the industry’s considerable influence with lawmakers suggests environmental advocates could face a tough battle ahead.

“Hopefully, Albertson’s bill will be seen for what it is when it reaches the House, and the EMC will not be bullied by the swine industry and its surrogates,” says Rick Dove of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

(This story originally appeared at Facing South.)