Another threat to state’s waters

The Observer editorial board

Duplin County has more hogs than any county in the nation, with more than 2 million.
Duplin County has more hogs than any county in the nation, with more than 2 million. N&O FILE PHOTO

As Duke Energy was revealing Wednesday that it expects to pay $100 million related to its Dan River coal ash spill, an equally worrisome kind of pollution was getting much less attention across the state.

Pig poop, it appears, is flowing into rivers and streams in eastern North Carolina, 20 years after the (Raleigh) News & Observer won a Pulitzer Prize for detailing how the hog industry pollutes with the protection of state policymakers.

North Carolina is the second-biggest hog producer in the nation, behind only Iowa, producing more than 4 billion pounds of hogs in 2010. Duplin County and Sampson County had the two largest hog populations of any county in the nation in 2007, with about 4.5 million hogs and pigs between them. More than 9 million hogs live in North Carolina, about one for every person in the state.

Those pigs produce a lot of waste. What to do with that waste has plagued hog-farming companies and their neighbors ever since the industry exploded here in the 1980s and 1990s. New research suggests we haven’t made enough progress.

A study published in January by researchers at UNC and Johns Hopkins University found that streams near large hog farms are filled with bacteria from hog waste. For a year, they tested water upstream and downstream from large hog facilities. The highest concentration of pig fecal matter was immediately downstream.

The researchers took 187 samples. Forty percent exceeded state and federal guidelines for fecal coliforms; 23 percent exceeded the standards for E. coli; and 61 percent exceeded the standards for Enterococcus, another bacteria derived from fecal matter. Certain fecal bacteria were two or three times as prevalent downstream from the hog operations as upstream, especially after heavy rains.

“People just can’t ignore this,” Naeema Muhammad with the N.C. Environmental Justice Network told Environmental Health News, which first reported on the study Wednesday. “The air stinks, the water is contaminated and property values are depleted.”

The industry, and even the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, dismissed the study, which was published in “Science of the Total Environment.” DENR spokesman Drew Elliot told Environmental Health News that the study was “inconclusive.” A Smithfield Foods spokesperson told EHN the study “unfairly vilifies North Carolina’s agricultural community.”

Both suggested that perhaps the bacteria in the water came from some kind of fecal matter other than from hogs and pigs. Study co-author Steve Wing said researchers conclusively determined that it was pig-specific.

North Carolina regulators long looked the other way while Duke Energy stored coal ash near the state’s waterways. They need to be more vigilant about hog waste. And the legislature should make sure DENR, and the hog industry, take action before, not after, the next environmental catastrophe.