Hog-Tied: How Both Parties and Big Ag Have Thwarted Public Health Regs in N.C. (Part 1)

Hog Country

In 1993, when Elsie Herring returned to the property that her grandfather – a former slave – purchased back in 1891, she discovered she had a rather odorous neighbor. In the 1980s, a hog farmer set up an operation on an adjacent property, complete with two barns, a lagoon (a man-made pond for pig waste), and a spray field. The spray field is where hoses pump the animal excrement when emptying the lagoons: the edge of this particular spray field is just eight feet from her home.

Elsie Herring lives in Duplin County in the southeast corner of North Carolina, in a region known as the Black Belt. Slaves used to work the plantations in this region, and until the 1950s, its major crop was tobacco. However, over the next few decades, as awareness over the danger of cigarettes grew, the region became the focal point of a new industry: pork. Today, North Carolina is the nation’s second-largest producer of pork – behind Iowa.

By 1995, 95% of the state’s hog farms were located in the eastern portion of the state. In Herring’s county, pigs outnumber people by a ratio of 39 to 1.

All of those hogs bring two things: jobs and excrement. The pork industry directly employs 12,000 people in the state, and nearly all of them are located in 11 counties in the southeast. However, these hogs create an enormous amount of waste: a hog can produce 10 to 15 pounds of it per day.

For many residents, the open-air lagoons and the spray of excrement can not only be irritating, they can also damage their health. According to studies conducted in hog-heavy Iowa and North Carolina, proximity to such facilities is linked to wheezing and higher risks for asthma, and the prevalence of gases such as ammonia, methane, and hydrogen sulfide can produce eye irritation and headaches.

In addition to polluting the air, the spraying of excrement can also contaminate the water. When nitrogen is converted to nitrates, they seep into the streams and groundwater. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), nitrates have been linked to a blood disorder known as methemoglobinemia.

While residents have complained about these environmental nuisances and health risks, decades of collusion between Republicans and Democrats – working on behalf of the agricultural industry – have kept environmental regulations at a minimum.

If It’s Good for the Industry…

One beneficiary of the growth in the pork industry has been Wendell Murphy, who in the 1970s began applying the “factory farm” model used for raising poultry to the pork industry. His business, Murphy Family Farms, grew so prosperous that in 2000, he sold it to Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest producer of pork.

In 1983, Murphy, a Democrat, was elected to the House in the state legislature. There, he supported bills that benefited him financially (which is allowed according to the state’s ethics rules) and hamstrung efforts to regulate the industry – a collection of legislation known as “Murphy’s laws.”

Murphy, a Democrat ... supported bills that benefited him financially and hamstrung efforts to regulate the industry.
Andrew Gripp, IVN Independent Author
In 1987, an effort led by Democrat Sen. Harold Hardison (then also a candidate for lieutenant governor) successfully pushed legislation that ended sales taxes on all buildings, equipment, and machinery for pork and poultry operations. Prior to the vote, Murphy had donated $100,000 to Hardison’s campaign – well in excess of the established maximum of $4,000.

This provision cost the state $1 million annually in lost revenue and boosted industry profits. It also precipitated a construction boom that permitted and accommodated the tripling of the state’s hog population.

Murphy also came to his and the industry’s defense in 1991 (now as a state senator) when the General Assembly considered legislation to undo the Hardison Amendments that had prevented state environmental regulations from exceeding federal guidelines.

Murphy proposed an amendment that would have effectively prevented the state from punishing operations that illegally disposed waste into the water supply. His amendment failed.

However, that same year, Murphy did succeed in co-sponsoring legislation that prevented counties from using their zoning authority to push back against the farms that were polluting their neighbors’ air and water.

By defining a “bona fide farm” as an operation engaged in the “production of crops, fruits, vegetables, ornamental and flowering plants, dairy, livestock, poultry,” localities became powerless against the sprawl of massive pig farms.

Residents Push Back

However, beginning in the 1990s, issues with lagoons and pollution forced the state to flirt with improving its environmental standards, creating a legislative contest between environmental groups and big agriculture.

In 1995, an 8-acre lagoon ruptured, polluting the New River with over 20 million gallons of waste, and other spills followed that summer. In 1999, damage caused by Hurricane Floyd caused dozens of lagoons to rupture.

In response, Smithfield Foods, in an agreement with the attorney general, promised to conduct research to develop environmentally superior technologies (ESTs) to replace the lagoon-and-spray method of waste disposal.

While alternatives were developed, the price of the new technology – which can cost farmers up to $1 million – has proven prohibitive. Few farmers have adopted it.

Frustrated, residents in the southeast began to organize. In 2002, a resident of Duplin County, Devon Hall, formed the organization REACH.

In 2007, REACH protested in front of the capitol building in Raleigh by constructing a miniature hog farm display – replete with 2 kiddie-pools filled with 40 gallons of manure. Another group, North Carolina’s Riverkeepers, filed a petition demanding more rigorous inspections of farming operations.

These environmental groups had some success, but their victories would eventually be stymied by legislators supported by the industry.

Battle Between Legislature and Regulators Commences

Later that year, after hearing testimony from all stakeholders, the General Assembly passed a moratorium on the construction of new and expanded farms that did not install ESTs.

Also in 2007, the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) proposed a rule requiring animal waste management facilities to take three samples at different locations to test water quality and submit them three times per year.

However, this proposal angered Sen. Charles Albertson, a former representative of Duplin and two other counties and a member of the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Albertson, who replaced the Senate seat vacated by Murphy, received thousands of dollars in political contributions from the N.C. Farm Bureau, Smithfield Foods, the N.C. Pork Council, and the N.C. Poultry Federation.

In response to the EMC’s proposed rule, Albertson sponsored a bill that would have prevented the EMC from adopting permanent rules until 2011. He claimed the EMC had a “vendetta” against the pork industry and stated that “water quality problems…are not caused by swine farmers.”

In December of that year, Freedman Farms, an operation that contained 4,800 hogs, illegally dumped 324,000 gallons of untreated waste into a tributary of the Waccamaw River. (In 2012, a U.S. District Judge found the owner guilty of violating the Clean Water Act and penalized him with fines totaling $1.5 million and six months in prison.)

While Albertson’s proposed moratorium floundered in the legislature for several years, it turned out that by 2011, the state would have a drastically different legislature – one far more hostile to environmental regulation.

Editor’s note: This article is part one of a two-part series on the relationship between both major parties in North Carolina and the agriculture industry. Check out part two here.