How New Tests Prove Hog, Poultry Pollution of NC Waters

Posted in: United States Water News, Water Contamination
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Photo Credit: John L. White

Article courtesy of STEPHEN T. SMITH AND GRAY JERNIGAN | July 1, 2015 | The News&Observer | Shared as educational material

While extensive data on water pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations are widely available, North Carolina finally has gathered its own facts on the surface-water effects of hog and poultry production in the state.

Three years of water testing by the U.S. Geological Survey and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources reveal that hog and poultry feces and urine are leaking out of open-air, unlined cesspools, draining off the waste disposal fields used by these facilities and polluting our streams and rivers. Particularly affected are the Neuse, Tar-Pamlico and Cape Fear rivers, with the rivers and the coastal waters they pour into providing millions of North Carolinians and tourists their livelihoods and recreation.

We and our children swim in these affected waters. We eat fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs from them. These waters are a crucial part of our lives. Do we really want to continue to allow hog and poultry factories, many controlled by corporate interests like Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods, to keep polluting our waters with hog and poultry feces?

In a study whose results were released last week, USGS scientists took water samples from 54 sites in the Coastal Plain and assessed water quality differences among streams with and without the influence of CAFOs. The researchers found that 58 percent of the watersheds that contained industrialized animal operations “had distinct differences in water quality reflecting swine and/or poultry manure effects.”

This study came about because the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation, the Neuse River Foundation, Waterkeeper Alliance and others filed legal action in 2007 requesting that the state implement a monitoring program to assure that CAFOs don’t pollute our streams, rivers and sounds. In response to that litigation, DENR and the N.C. Environmental Management Commission, with ongoing involvement of many stakeholders, developed draft water-quality regulations.

These regulations were met with a firestorm of opposition from the hog and poultry industries, asserting a threat to “family farms.” It’s true that many swine and poultry factories are family-owned and located on properties that have historically been family farms. But today those same farms often maintain populations of 7,000 or more hogs or 100,000 or more chickens. These are not the hog pens and chicken houses of our grandparents. These farms are bound by contracts with large corporations that dictate how the facility must operate to maximize profits. A town producing the same quantities of waste as these factories couldn’t exist in today’s North Carolina without a regulated sewage treatment plant, but the state allows CAFOs to get by with open-air, unlined cesspools and disposal fields.

By 2009 the political support for better control of animal waste had greatly weakened. The opposition coalesced around the call for “more, better data,” and this study was born.

Now after three years of water sampling and analysis by USGS/DENR, we have that “more, better data.” It’s not surprising to learn that factory hog and poultry waste systems are failing to protect us, although it is shocking that we allow it to continue while we swim in, eat from and sail on those downstream waters.

We should all watch to see what the state does with these findings. If our government follows its recent pattern, the findings will be pushed aside, ignored and forgotten while the pollution continues unabated. Or the science will be denied by industry-backed opponents to proper animal waste disposal. Or we’ll hear cries of “no more job-killing environmental regulation.” Or the pork and poultry industries will claim that cleaning up their mess will cost jobs, put “farms” out of business and drive up the price of pork and chicken.

We and many other North Carolinians are tired of business as usual. We believe clean water is good for business and good for North Carolina’s economy and creates good jobs. We believe we are all called to be good stewards of God’s creation. And we believe our children, grandchildren and their children deserve a better world than we are leaving them.

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