Photo: Maurice / Flickr
“Pigs are filthy animals,” says Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction, and it’s a common misconception. We picture pigs rolling around in mud, feasting on slop and living in tiny compartments with thousands of others, but these animals have become victims of circumstance. In normal situations, pigs tend to be “clean, smart and social animals,” writes nutrition writer John McCabe, but the conditions of the farms that house them have stained their reputations.
In North Carolina, residents claim that the state’s 2,000 hog farms are spreading waste like butter on toast. Operations fill storage lagoons to the top and spray overflow onto fields (which they see as a sort of “discount fertilizer”), but several residents are complaining that these farms are spraying nearby homes instead.
“It’s very, very offensive,” says longtime resident Elsie Herring. “I don’t feel comfortable even having people over, because it’s embarrassing and humiliating that, you know, you’re trying to entertain someone and there’s someone eight feet away spraying animal waste on you.”
Pig waste contaminates water and air supplies for local communities. Inhalation can cause a number of symptoms, such as eye irritation, wheezing, nausea and even high blood pressure. Others are just angry about the stench. Homeowner Karen Priest explains:
“We purchased our house in 1987… About four years ago, a hog farm was built behind our house and they raised 7,300 topping hogs. And another hog farm is located about one mile west of my house which raises 6,000 topping hogs – and it’s been a nightmare for us for the last four years. We have not opened our windows. Occasionally, we smell it inside our house, which we’re lucky – a lot of people get it all the time but we only smell it occasionally in our house… It’ll hit you in the face some mornings when you walk out. And that’s how I start my day – just angry that I walk out my door and smell this mess and have no control over it… It’s just awful… It’s like a cloud rolling in.”
Things weren’t always this way. Up through the 1980s, pig farms typically housed only a few animals at a time. They were free to roam the outdoors, and waste was used to fertilize crops. But for the past 30 years, customer demand has caused small farms to be bought out or shut down as larger farms grew throughout the country’s southern and Midwestern regions. Duplin County in North Carolina is home to approximately 530 hog operations and nearly three million animals, which produce over 15 million tons of manure annually.
Hog farms flush their waste into nearby lagoons, which contain enough toxins and nutrients to turn the water pink, as National Geographic reports. While the state enforces strict regulations to ensure water sources stay free of pollution, farms don’t always play by the rules, putting locals at risk and turning the eastern part of the state into one big waste haven.
North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality is also the target of legal action, accused of what Waterkeeper Alliance labels “environmental racism” and allowing farms to situate closer to minority districts.
“This is the first time that communities hard hit by the concentration of these animal feeding operations, particularly low income communities of color, have appealed to the federal government to come in and enforce civil rights law in this context,” says Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman Lado.
But not everyone believes the problems are real. Jeff Spedding of Smithfield Foods says he’s never had a complaint from any of his neighbors. He states that farms try to do what’s right, but that there’s no better way to get rid of the waste in question.
“It gets into what’s cost-effective,” he explains. “It also gets into what’s reasonable. There isn’t any technology that’s more efficient than what we’re doing.”