Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler says that he won’t seek a declaration of emergency to deal with a widespread outbreak of a virus that kills whole generations of piglets.
A pair of environmental groups had called on him to ask Gov. Pat McCrory for the declaration, which would have triggered emergency guidelines for disposing of the dead swine. The Waterkeeper Alliance and the N.C. Riverkeepers, which are water-quality watchdogs, sent Troxler a letter Feb. 27 seeking not only the declaration but asking him to release more information on the outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea or PED.
The virus is spread with unusual ease and has been sweeping the country since it was first found on farms in Iowa last spring. As of last month, it had reached nearly a third of the 3,000 large commercial swine farms in North Carolina, the second-leading pork producer in the country and home to about 9 million hogs.
The virus poses no danger to humans. It usually only briefly sickens adult swine but kills nearly every piglet born in an infected barn for at least several weeks. Experts believe it may kill up to 2 percent of the national herd.
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Troxler challenges theories
The environmentalists said that they had seen evidence that hog farmers may be burying large numbers of dead animals where they could contaminate groundwater. They also said they were seeing instances in which piles of dead hogs were left for days in overflowing “dead boxes” and that the blood and other liquids from those are seeping into groundwater and streams.
Troxler replied Friday with a three-page letter that he also emailed to the groups, challenging several of their assertions and saying that his department was taking its responsibilities regarding the disposal of dead animals seriously.
After receiving the groups’ letter, Troxler says he directed State Veterinarian David Marshall and his staff to conduct unannounced flyovers of breeding operations in half a dozen counties where PED had hit. They found no problems with the farms, he wrote.
The guidelines that would be triggered by an emergency declaration were developed to deal with “mass casualty” events in the wake of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, in which almost 30,000 hogs were killed in flooding.
Troxler wrote that it was ridiculous to compare swine deaths from the epidemic to those in Floyd. Disposal of the swine killed in the hurricane was complicated by the fact that many of those dead were adult hogs and older pigs. It takes about 250 piglets to equal the mass of a single 500-pound sow, he wrote.
The hurricane occurred in hot weather and hit at once, but the PED epidemic has been spread over eight months, with many of the deaths occurring in an unusually cold winter, which makes decay slower, he wrote.
What of contamination?
There were some minor delays in pickup of dead swine for disposal last year when the virus first hit and during recent snow storms, Troxler wrote, but that was nothing like the delays in Floyd when roads and bridges were flooded.
He also said that his department was unaware of any published scientific data that showed PED had ever contaminated groundwater. He asked the groups for help identifying the location of one of the overflowing boxes of hog bodies that they had attached with their letter, and also asked them to identify which rendering plants they believed were at capacity, as they had asserted.
“Our own research into this claim shows that rendering plants have the necessary capacity to handle the carcasses,” he wrote.
Gray Jernigan, a North Carolina-based staff attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance, said Friday afternoon that the environmental groups had received Troxler’s response but needed time to read and discuss it before responding.
In addition to the emergency guidelines, there is a state law regarding the disposition of dead domesticated animals. Among other things, it requires that they be buried within 24 hours, at least 300 feet from streams or other public bodies of water and at least 3 feet deep.
PED thrives in cold, wet weather. Swine experts think that eventually it will hit most or all farms in the state and then become a much less serious problem as the herds develop immunity.