Hog Factory Farming: Lagoons or Environmental Menace?
By Michele Simon
Originally published on WholeFoods.com, July 1999.

Wouldn't you enjoy a relaxing visit to the lagoons of North Carolina? Sounds enticing, but the reality is fumes from animal factory farms that cause nearby residents to wear surgical masks. In rural areas of other states such as Illinois and Minnesota, some residents have been forced to evacuate their homes. The cause is massive proliferation of hog factory farms that environmentalists say is resulting in dangerous pollution of the air and waterways.

Consequences of Mega-Hog Take-Overs
Agribusiness is increasingly controlled by a handful of mega-corporations that are driving out independent producers. Known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, their massive livestock operations can house tens of thousands of animals. Hog CAFOs produce and store the large output of animal waste in deep, clay-lined trenches industry calls "lagoons." According to the Sierra Club, they are far from leak-proof and pose a significant threat to both surrounding waterways and the air residents breathe. For example, the collapse of a North Carolina hog waste lagoon in 1995 sent 25 million gallons of raw hog manure into the New River. And in Minnesota, pre-schoolers were sickened when the odor of a nearby hog-waste lagoon brought high levels of hydrogen sulfide into their classroom.

Over 400 compounds are dispersed by lagoons, some of which can be toxic to humans. A study released on May 7 found that people living near large hog farms in North Carolina suffer significantly higher levels of upper respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments than people living near other farming areas. Those exposed reported higher occurrence of headaches, runny nose, sore throat, excessive coughing, diarrhea, and burning eyes. "Citizens in eastern North Carolina have been saying for some time that these industrial hog operations were having an adverse affect on their health," University of North Carolina researcher Dr. Steve Wing said. "Now, we have a scientific study that supports their claims."

Government and Community Response
The Clinton Administration unveiled a plan last fall that would bring all CAFOs under the federal Clean Water Act and would require registering with the Environmental Protection Agency for a clean water permit by 2001. But some environmental groups complain that the policy fails to move fast enough to stop the pollution in the short-term. Joe Rudek, an Environmental Defense Fund scientist, says the policy "sticks taxpayers and small growers with the full cost of implementation, while letting factory farms off the hook." This appears to be the plan in North Carolina, where Governor Jim Hunt announced on April 9 that cleaning up over 700 abandoned waste lagoons could cost at least $400 million and that taxpayers should be prepared to pick up much of the tab in coming years.

Many local communities aren't waiting for federal action but are fighting back, calling for moratoriums on further factory farm construction. States such as North Carolina, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Virginia have passed bills imposing restrictions on hog operations. Karen Hudson is president and founder of Families Against Rural Messes, (FARM) a grassroots organization formed in 1996 in response to news that a CAFO was to be built in her community in rural Illinois. "We're calling for an end to lagoon technology," she says. "Lagoon sounds like some sort of tropical blue lake you go swimming in. We call them cesspools." Hudson continues to raise awareness about the problem despite threats made to her and her family. "We've had shots fired at our house. I've had hog manure dumped on my front porch in the middle of the night," she says. "It's a Pandora's box of problems. I talk to so many people affected by this. They're sick and their children are sick. And this is happening all over the country."

Links For More Information and How to Take Action

Sierra Club (For their "Pig Map" of CAFOs around the country.)

Environmental Defense Fund (For details on the situation in North Carolina.)

Families Against Rural Messes (Great resource for news and legislative actions.)