Leading from the Left

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

It's "Toot Your Own Horn" Day

The Chapel Hill News ran a good editorial on Sunday supporting my concerns with the county's budget process and, specifically, commissioners not getting information in a timely manner.

Also on Sunday, the Herald ran my op-ed on Hog Farms in North Carolina. I can't find the link on their website (arggghhh!) so here's the text in full.

What does summer smell like to you? Honeysuckle on your front porch? Sunscreen and salt water at the beach? Burgers cooking on an outdoor grill? These scents bring back memories for most of us, reminding us of some of the best summers of our lives. However, for many people in eastern North Carolina, summer smells like a sewer.

For these unfortunate souls in eastern NC, many of them African-American and nearly all poor, the torpid days of summer only intensify the odors from hog lagoons that they have to live with year round. We have an opportunity this summer to change that if the General Assembly passes legislation to address the environmental effects of hog waste lagoons and sprayfields. Legislation currently being considered will, if passed, go a long way to address the ecological impacts and environmental justice concerns caused by the swine industry.

North Carolina has the second-largest hog industry in the nation and the largest in the South; currently, over ten million hogs are raised in North Carolina, mostly on major corporate farms. While hog farming is vital to the state’s economy, it also creates massive amounts of hog waste. Currently, that waste is dumped into hog “lagoons,” or huge clay-lined cesspools, some up to 120,000 square feet in area and thirty feet deep. These pools are open to the air, releasing hundreds of tons of ammonia, bacteria, and other pollutants into the air as the waste decomposes. Live downwind from one of these pits, like many people in eastern North Carolina do, and a light breeze can turn into an awful stench.

But the problem doesn’t end there. Imagine having hog waste sprayed on your home, on your car, even on your clothes and in your water supply. Many hog lagoons are accompanied by “sprayfields,” where decaying hog waste is sprayed on nearby agricultural fields as cheap fertilizer. This spraying can take place just a few yards from people’s homes and businesses, making it impossible for them to invite friends over, hang their laundry out to dry, or even sit outside.

Lagoons and sprayfields have deeper environmental repercussions as well, ones that affect the entire state. Because lagoons are open to the air, they are extremely vulnerable to rupture or leakage. Many North Carolina residents remember Hurricane Floyd in 1999, which devastated the coastline and caused severe flooding over much of eastern NC. Hog lagoons in the path of the hurricane flooded and overflowed into rivers, lakes, and other water sources, causing massive pollution as over 120 millions gallons of ammonia, methane, giardia, salmonella, and cyanide—all contained in hog waste—entered the water supply.

However, it doesn’t take a natural disaster like Hurricane Floyd for hog cesspools to do major harm to the environment. Even minor rainfall can cause lagoons to overflow, creating runoff into nearby lakes and streams. Many hog lagoons don’t have liners or any sort of protective barrier, so hog waste seeps unchecked into nearby groundwater and wells. In addition to this, excessive use of sprayfields is a constant source of runoff—hog lagoons create more waste than can be used as fertilizer on fields, so the unabsorbed waste makes its way into local water supply. Simply put, hog lagoons are an ongoing environmental and public health disaster.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd, the North Carolina General Assembly imposed a moratorium on the creation of new hog lagoons. That moratorium is set to expire in August, and the legislature has yet to pass a comprehensive plan for dealing with the problem of hog lagoons. North Carolina needs decisive action, and soon, to prevent some of the state’s biggest polluters from expanding even further, causing untold damage to our rivers, lakes, and wells. Currently, there are several bills attempting to address the environmental problems of lagoons. The most comprehensive of these, Senate Bill 1465, would permanently ban creation of new lagoons and sprayfields, forcing the hog industry to find new ways of dealing with the staggering amounts of waste created in factory swine farms. SB 1465 passed the Senate and currently awaits action in the House.

Years of experience with the hog industry have shown North Carolina that lagoons and sprayfields have catastrophic effects on public health, safety, and our environment. For the good of the state, please urge our delegation to the state House of Representatives to support SB 1465 and ban hog lagoons and sprayfields. Perhaps this will be the year that North Carolina finally deals with the filth caused by hog waste in the Eastern half of our state.

If we do, our eastern neighbors will breathe a sigh of relief. Only this time, they’ll be able to smell the sweet aroma of summer.