North Carolina is the second largest pork producer in the U.S. and home to more than 2,500 pig CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations).1 The estimated 9 million pigs living in the state produce copious amounts of waste — up to 10 times the amount of an average human2 — for which there is no easy, nor environmentally friendly, disposal solution. Whereas a small farm can use the waste produced by its animals as fertilizer, the massive amounts of waste produced on CAFOs becomes a toxic liability.
Nonetheless, it's typically stored in "lagoons," where the waste can leach into groundwater and wells, run off into waterways and cause all sort of environmental problems. The liquefied waste from the lagoons is then sprayed onto nearby fields. North Carolina alone has an estimated 4,500 active lagoons and 1,700 inactive lagoons,3 and tests have revealed they contain far higher levels of pollutants than the industrial farms are reporting.
North Carolina CAFOs Not Reporting True Levels of Toxic Pollutants in Waste Lagoons
Inspectors with North Carolina's department of environmental quality (DEQ) tested 55 waste lagoons at 35 CAFOs, which revealed vastly different levels of pollutants than were reported by the CAFOs' own tests just one month prior.
In a letter to one CAFO, the DEQ stated, "The results show a significant difference in the PAN [peroxyacetyl nitrate] concentrations as well as other macro and micro nutrients that put into question the validity of the March 17th sampling results. It is unlikely that a lagoon make-up will change significantly in a month without a significant operations event occurring like a lagoon sludge clean out."4
Among the disparities were levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals, including zinc and copper. In one case, zinc levels were more than 100,000 percent higher in the DEQ's tests compared to what the CAFOs reported.
Speaking to The Guardian, Devon Hall, co-founder of Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH), an anti-hog-CAFO group, said, "This manipulation of data is an insult to the community members suffering from the industry's continued use of the lagoon and spray field system … We demand real enforcement. The response to this slap in the face should be more than a slap on the wrist."5
North Carolina regulators have since launched an investigation into the underreporting of toxins, including "additional evaluation of historic data" at the CAFOs. Curiously, in their certified letter to one of the CAFOs where discrepancies were reported, the DEQ also apologized for the "short notice" provided by their staff regarding the collection of samples.6
Unfortunately, even as CAFOs have polluted waterways and endangered residents' health, they've been allowed to flourish in the state, despite it being a hurricane-prone area.
Waste stored in open-air lagoons may be breached by floodwaters from hurricanes. This has occurred in North Carolina repeatedly: in 1996 following Hurricane Fran; in 1998 following Hurricane Bonnie; in 1999 following Hurricane Floyd; and in 2016 following Hurricane Matthew. In 1997, following manure spills that proved to be disastrous, North Carolina implemented a ban on the construction of new CAFOs, but the ban expired in 1997 (and loopholes allowed some CAFOs to be built even during the ban).7
Pig Fecal Matter Regularly Spattered on Neighbors' Homes
CAFOs throughout the U.S. have been battling a slew of lawsuits from neighbors whose lives have been ruined by the industrial farming facilities. In North Carolina alone, The Guardian reported, pig farms "produce around 10bn [billion] gallons of feces a year, which is more than the volume of waste flushed down toilets by the human population of Germany."8
Says Elsie Herring, who lives in eastern North Carolina next to a field regularly sprayed with CAFO pig manure, "You stand outside and it feels like it's raining but then you realize it isn't rain. It's animal waste. It takes your breath away. You start gagging, coughing, your pulse increases. All you can do is run for cover."9 In April 2018, a federal jury ruled in the favor of North Carolina residents who live near the Kinlaw hog farm, a 14,000-animal facility, in Bladen County.
They were awarded a collective $750,000 in compensation plus another $50 million in damages as part of a nuisance lawsuit against Murphy Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer. The suit claimed the operations and manure lagoons were harming residents' health and lowering property values. According to one of the attorneys on the case, Michael Kaeske, bacteria from swine digestive systems were found coating the exterior surfaces of all 10 of the plaintiffs' homes.10 The lawsuit stated:11
"Specifically, these homes have tested positive for the DNA fingerprint of pig intestinal bacteria on their surfaces — they literally have pig feces on their walls. Which means that what the families have been saying for so many years, is true — they have been assaulted by the particles of a foul, disgusting and germ-ridden odor. Which the multinational company refuses to correct even as it receives the economic benefits of record exports and profits."
The favorable verdict gave hope to the many other communities rallying against the damages caused by industrial agriculture, particularly since Smithfield and other meat producers wield incredible lobbying power, making nuisance lawsuits historically difficult to win. Unfortunately, about a week after the ruling, a federal judge called upon a North Carolina law that limits punitive damages to no more than three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater.
As a result, damages in the suit were reduced to $3.25 million, which means the plaintiffs, who were set to receive $5 million in compensatory damages, will each receive $325,000 instead — hardly enough to compensate them for the damages and allow them to relocate. Murphy Brown is also appealing the Kinlaw case, and only time will tell whether the company will ultimately be held responsible. This suit is only the first of 26 nuisance lawsuits filed against Murphy Brown; the next went on trial in June 2018.12