Last week, the INDY published the final installment of an investigative series into North Carolina's hog-farming industry. Among the series' takeaways was the conclusion that, despite decades of research, little has been done legislatively to rein in the industry's lagoon-to-spray-field waste-management system, which operates by storing the hogs' waste in open-air lagoons and spraying the excess waste onto nearby fields.
U.S. Representative David Price, a Democrat who represents Wake and Orange counties, is trying to change that.
In late May, Price introduced legislation to improve environmental standards for North Carolina's hog industry. The aptly titled SWINE Act aims to encourage the "development, certification, and adoption" of environmentally sustainable waste-management technologies—a move Price and others say is a critical next step for the environment and the people who live near the hog farms.
"All these lagoons all over eastern North Carolina are a disaster waiting to happen," Price says. "And it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when there's some kind of major disaster that spreads that waste all over the landscape and gives us a real crisis to deal with."
Price's bill would take a number of steps to encourage the development of superior technology, with the eventual goal of phasing out the state's thirty-three hundred lagoons altogether. Under the bill, all environmentally sustainable waste-management systems would have to be certified by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
In order to receive the certification, they would have to comply with six standards: eliminate discharge into surface waters and groundwater; substantially eliminate ammonia emissions; substantially eliminate odor emissions; substantially eliminate the release of "disease-transmitting vectors and airborne pathogens from swine waste"; substantially eliminate nutrient and heavy metal contamination; and be cost-effective.
According to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, only two farms in the state currently meet all of those criteria (with the possible exception of being cost-effective).
The bill would also establish a program to support research into environmentally sustainable technologies and create tax incentives for new technologies, including a 20 percent credit over five years to install environmentally superior technology and a credit of $100 per one thousand pounds of hog waste disposed of using the certified technologies.
These technologies have not already been implemented on a wider scale in North Carolina because they're expensive, particularly for existing farms. But Price hopes the tax credits will help incentivize producers to implement better tech in an economically feasible way.
"It's never going to be free," he says. "It's never going to be as cheap as pumping everything into a lagoon. I think we're at the point where we could, with proper incentives, have a large-scale conversion of lagoon technology to these much sounder and safer techniques. It's not like we don't know how to do this."
Price's focus on the industry's waste-management issues dates back many years, he says, but he was compelled to introduce what he believes is perhaps Congress's first "comprehensive environmental protection bill" related to the swine industry after recognizing that a slower, piecemeal approach just wasn't working.
He concedes that it's a difficult political environment, both in Raleigh and Washington, but he says he's hopeful about the bill's potential, as "these problems don't have partisan boundaries, really." (On June 16, the bill was referred to the Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Conservation of Forestry.)
And the alternative to not introducing the technology, Price and other industry reform advocates say, is dire. Another severe weather event—think Hurricane Matthew—could cause lagoons to overflow or flood into surrounding waterways.
"It's a problem our state has a huge stake in," he says. "It's a matter of finding the political will to get ahead of the curve here. Because if we don't do something like this, if we don't get these farms onto a sounder waste-disposal system, we're going to live to regret it. I firmly believe that."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Disaster Waiting to Happen"