Monday, November 26, 2018

N.C. hog-waste lagoons haven't changed much in 20 years; Smithfield says it will act there, and in Missouri and Utah

After open-air hog-waste lagoons overflowed and mixed with flood waters from Hurricane Floyd in 1999, North Carolina leaders promised to eliminate the waste pits. But almost 19 years later, the second-largest pork producing state has failed to come up with a viable alternative, and hurricanes keep slamming the state. In September, Hurricane Florence dumped a record 8 trillion gallons over the state, causing 33 lagoons to overflow.

In 2000, Smithfield Foods, the world's biggest pork producer and and a major presence in the state, promised to pay for research to find alternatives to the lagoons and to install them within three years. "Today, many North Carolina hog farmers continue to store hog waste in open pits despite the millions of dollars in private investment spent and years of research and political promises. Little has changed, storms are intensifying and the clock is ticking on the Smithfield agreement, which expires in 2025," Talia Buford reports for ProPublica. Smithfield announced in October it would cover 90 percent of the hog lagoons in North Carolina, Missouri and Utah within 10 years as part of a plan to reduce its carbon footprint.

The statewide plan fizzled for several reasons: the "all-or-nothing" strategy meant that nothing would change unless the perfect replacement system was developed, and it was not only ambitious but ambiguous. "The deal required the 'substantial' elimination of odors, ammonia emissions, bacteria, soil and groundwater contamination, and waste discharges, yet it did not state what that threshold was or what costs the industry was obliged to absorb," Buford reports. "The deal also was mum on the odors, pests and other nuisances that people who live near the lagoons continue to endure." The recession and the state's shift toward Republican lawmakers put the agreement on the back burner in recent years.

Because state government and industry have not acted, citizens increasingly seek change through the courts. More than 500 people have joined 26 federal lawsuits against a Smithfield subsidiary since 2014, arguing that the hog farms are nuisances that bring terrible odors, flies, and heavy traffic. "Juries have awarded multimillion-dollar damages to plaintiffs in three of the lawsuits so far," and a fourth trial began this month, Buford reports.

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