Cleaning Up Hog Farming Operations.

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Dear EarthTalk: What’s being done to clean up hog farming operations in places like Iowa and North Carolina and others where the industry is quite large? I’ve heard horrific stories about man-made lagoons of animal waste spilling into and fouling rivers and groundwater and the like.

Hog farming has always been a messy business, but surging demand for pork in recent years has exacerbated an already foul problem: dealing with the continual production of the bodily waste of thousands of animals. Pigs are kept in tight quarters and their waste is channeled into huge open-air lagoon pits and sprayfields. The lagoons can rupture during heavy rains, unleashing a torrent of bacteria- and virus-laden feces and urine into nearby groundwater, lakes and streams. Likewise, sprayfields, where some farmers discard animal waste by spraying it over otherwise unused land, can pollute surrounding waterways and contaminate drinking water. Another side effect is air pollution: The lagoons and sprayfields emit methane (a leading greenhouse gas) and ammonia (a respiratory irritant) into the atmosphere, the foul odors sullying the air quality and neighbors quality of life for miles around.

The problem has been especially bad in North Carolina, where the number of hogs raised has gone up fourfold in the last two decades – hog farmers there now raise and slaughter some 10 million hogs a year. In 1995, a hog waste lagoon overflow at Ocean View Farms in North Carolina sent 20 million gallons of hog waste into the New River, causing massive fish kills and contaminating drinking water in several neighboring communities. And the torrential rains and flooding that accompanied 1999’s Hurricane Floyd wreaked havoc on hog farm waste lagoons and surrounding ecosystems across North Carolina.

But while hog farming has a deservedly bad reputation, that may all change thanks to farmers, activists, researchers and policymakers who are working hard to reduce the negative environmental impacts of the business and even capitalize on the waste itself. Pioneering research conducted at North Carolina State University has showed that technologies were already available to not only reduce hog waste pollution but to use it to grow crops like duckweed that can be converted into carbon-neutral, fuel-grade ethanol.

Meanwhile, an economic analysis by the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) found that North Carolina could gain 7,000 jobs and add $10 billion to its economy if the hog industry there were to move to more innovative systems for treating waste. In its report, EDF stresses the importance of incentives and cost-share programs to help make such new systems affordable for the farmers who need them.

Citing this and other research, along with public outcry over waste lagoon overflows, North Carolina lawmakers passed the Swine Farm Environmental Performance Standards Act in 2007. The landmark law makes North Carolina the first state to ban the construction or expansion of waste lagoons and sprayfields on hog farms and helps hog farmers with up to 90 percent of the costs incurred by upgrading to more sustainable waste management systems. The law also funds a swine farm methane capture pilot program that will have some 50 hog farms generating electricity from their animals’ emissions by September 2010. Time will tell whether North Carolina’s trailblazing on the issue will influence lawmakers elsewhere.

CONTACTS: Tiny Super-Plant can Clean Up Hog Farms and Be Used for Ethanol Production, NC State University, blogs.lib.ncsu.edu/cnrnews/entry/tiny_super_plant_can_clean; EDF, www.edf.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk, c/o E The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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Comments

  1. I find it interesting that horror stories of swine lagoons are so prevalent in the news and enviromental type blogs.

    I worked in the swine industry for about 10 years as an electrical contractor. I was able to see first hand the abuses of animals and the environment. It affected me enough that I finally left the industry.

    I was also contracting work involved with municipal and city sewage treatment. The hypocrisy of the environmental agencies at the time was stunning. Example: A farmer with an above ground sewage storage facility had a catastrophic failure of his sewage tank. 10,000,000 litres of liquid manure escaped onto the ground around his facility. Due in large part to the fact the facilty was in a natural depression, most of the sewage was able to be cleaned up before it hit any of the area waterways. The epa fined him $200,000 (yep) that he was forced to pay or else the government would have shut down and seized his operation for non-payment.

    # months later, a fair sized city only 200 kilometers away from this farmer had catastrophic valve failure. The city was not able to repair the valves for 11 days. In that time, over 10,000,000 litres of RAW, UNTREATED human sewage was released into the major river in the city that it uses to “dispose” of its “treated” sewage. What was the fine leavied on that city? $0.00. No investigation. Kill the story in the press. Political pressure exerted at 3 levels of government to make the story disappear.

    This is not a rare event. Most municipalities, towns, and cities in my area have had sewage failures that resulted in raw sewage being released into natural bodies of water.

    Why is this not talked about? Why are people not screaming from the roof tops about governments who enact legislation that is enforced on the public with religious zeal, but fails to acknowledge its own failures?

    Sorry. My rant for the day.

  2. It would hit home a little better if people has to publicly announce their choices.

    “i prefer purchasing meat from animals that have been mistreated in the most inhumane ways. They should live in cages, not be able to turn around or sit or see the light of day”

    Animals are given antibiotics because they could not otherwise survive in living conditions we’ve set for them. That’s sick.

    It always comes down to…. have a heart and some dignity.

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