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Synthetic lagoons are a traditional method for storing animal waste at factory farms, but this practice has proven to be harmful to neighboring communities due to a variety of reasons. North Carolina is one of the nation’s leading hog producers with more than 2,100 hog farms and 3,300 lagoons. These lagoons, or cesspools, often leak or overflow, which leads to bacteria leaching into local water supplies. In order to decrease the amount of waste pileup, factory farms use it as fertilizer for “sprayfields” which harm air and water quality. Neighboring communities are affected by the gasses that get carried by the wind, which contain many hazardous chemicals.
Another risk is the contamination of drinking water supplies, also affecting neighboring communities by causing birth defects and disease outbreaks. A few years ago, Smithfield, having numerous hog farms in North Carolina, pledged to cover manure ponds due to increasing opposition against the lagoons. This “animal waste-to-energy plan” followed a series of lawsuits from those affected by the air and water contaminants, but little progress has been documented.
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Rather than the “traditional” treatment of waste which involves strict regulation and municipal sewer systems, factory farms use pools, or lagoons, to store animal waste which is applied untreated as fertilizer to fields. These lagoons hold manure and urine from animals which gets funneled into where the waste then sits, usually only protected by a barrier of clay. Not only do the lagoons contain animal waste, but also antibiotic residues, bedding waste, chemicals such as cleaning solutions, and deceased animals.
Lagoon treatment consists of manure and other materials settling to the bottom, where microbes convert the settled solids into sludge and organic acids. This is where methane (CH4) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) arise from. For this reason, lagoons are regarded as biological treatment systems. These lagoons are the most widely used method for handling hog manure in North Carolina, since the area doesn’t frequently experience freezing temperatures in the winter. Excess waste from these lagoons is then sprayed on surrounding fields and is used as fertilizer, spreading into immediate areas. This has led residents and neighboring farmers in North Carolina to experience many different health problems, coupled with the smell that wafts over from these lagoons and sprayfields.
Smithfield, its subsidiaries, and its contractors, have been responsible for pollution problems ranging from lagoon spills to polluted runoff from sprayfields. There are numerous health risks that arise from spills, and Smithfield has a long history of waste mismanagement in North Carolina. Leaching from lagoons raises many concerns from a wide variety of factors, such as parasites, viruses, bacteria and pathogens that then flow into bodies of water and enter drinking supplies.
Leaching isn’t the only threat from lagoons, though. Lagoons emit toxic airborne chemicals that cause health problems, resulting from the decomposition of liquid manure by anaerobic bacteria during storage and treatment. The compounds that pose the largest threats for air quality and human health include: Ammonia, Hydrogen Sulfide, Carbon Dioxide, and Methane. Exposure to concentrated amounts of these chemicals can lead to health effects such as seizures and long-term respiratory complications.
One of the health research teams at the University of North Carolina studying Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) found that a number of pathogenic microbes in swine waste can infect people. What is most alarming is that their reports indicated that bacterial levels in swine lagoon effluents are much higher than what is allowed for municipal wastewater, and these contents are being released into land and water. This poses a huge risk for neighboring communities that rely on groundwater for drinking water. The weather in North Carolina also exacerbates these issues. Frequent hurricanes and heavy rainfall lead to flooding, with one example being Hurricane Florence in 2018 which caused three manure lagoons to burst, and left 14 inundated, which led manure to leak into the flood waters.
Another concern is bacterial resistance through the continual use of antibiotics on animals in factory farms and how they enter water sources. The EPA’s National Research Exposure Laboratory revealed that up to 80% of antibiotics administered orally to animals pass through the animal unchanged into waste lagoons, which allows antibiotics to enter groundwater and runoff through fertilizer taken from the lagoons. While this kills harmful bacteria, it leaves behind stronger, more resistant bacteria in water systems that makes it harder to treat human diseases. All of these factors have diminished the quality of life for neighboring communities, and posed risks for those that rely on local water resources.
North Carolina became one of the top states for industrialized pork production and the fastest pork-producing state once Smithfield moved to one of its counties in the early 1990’s. Legislators and those working for the industry ignored the claims coming from those who warned that building lagoons filled with hazardous contaminants in a floodplain that continued to be developed. A moratorium was placed into effect a few years after Smithfield farms grew exponentially, which prevented companies from building new lagoons but didn’t address the existing ones.
In the decades since Smithfield moved to North Carolina, nearby residents have been forced to live with the smell traveling from these farms and lagoons, as well as the health complications that came from multiple flooding occasions and leaching into their water sources. Allegations of racism and environmental injustices have been at the heart of these communities’ battles to relocate or get rid of the lagoons altogether. These allegations are supported by studies, such as Steven Wing’s at the University of North Carolina, which documented the health risks of living near an industrial hog farm.
In 2014, more than 500 neighbors of farms that raise Smithfield pigs sued the company, claiming that this system infringes on their quality of life, and calling it a nuisance. The majority of the plaintiffs involved were Black, since the communities being affected were primarily Black and POC-populated. A suggestion was made at one of the questionings for a case stating that plaintiffs were being made to suffer under conditions that also affected their health because they lacked political influence and didn’t live in an affluent area. This is partially true, but didn’t explicitly acknowledge the environmental racism involved in the reasoning for these cases.
Over the last few years, Smithfield has lost a handful of these cases, resulting in the loss of tens of millions of dollars. It even proposed retrials which were rejected on the grounds that Smithfield persisted in its chosen farming practices despite its knowledge of the harms to its neighbors.
Smithfield tried to appeal nuisance lawsuits won by residents in North Carolina over the effects caused by odors and waste from the lagoons, and North Carolina legislators passed laws in response to the lawsuits that restricted the ability of residents to sue the industry. This would restrict future efforts of the residents that tried initiating change in their communities, but public attention had brought a lot of the issues Smithfield caused to light, leading it to propose some official changes in its practices.
In 2018, Smithfield promised to cover its lagoons in plastic, claiming that it would pay farmers to install plastic covers over their lagoons. This specific goal would take care of the waste coming from hogs at their highest weight in states such as North Carolina, Utah, and Missouri. Since the lawsuits and other complaints, Smithfield has been working with the Environmental Defense Fund to reduce its environmental impact through these covers, capturing tens of thousands of metric tons of methane a year.
This seems to take care of issues regarding smell and portions of emissions, but it doesn’t have much impact on the waste still sitting in the lagoons. Another decision Smithfield made in recent years following this proposal was to push the hog waste lagoons to collect, transport and sell biogas from feeding lagoons in North Carolina, which the state allowed it to do through the “Grady Road Project”, or animal waste-to-energy plan. The claim was that the methane produced could power nearby homes, but this requires secondary lagoons. This brings on the risk of producing more ammonia through methane extraction processes and further threatening both air and water quality for the neighboring communities.
The EPA is now investigating this decision and environmentalists are also suggesting that there are better Environmental Support Technologies (ESTs) that can prevent waste from polluting the nearby land and water. There is still a lot of debate whether or not Smithfield has actually made any recognizable progress.
Smithfield does not have a good track record of enforcing standards within its farms. Some suggest this lack of change is motivated by their ulterior motive to try to profit from suggestions that don’t have a huge benefit to the public or environment. That is why proposals to phase out the use of lagoons, and resorting to alternative farming practices seem like the best options in order to keep the best interest of those affected in mind. Existing operations should at the very least be prohibited from expanding their lagoon systems in areas where there is any potential for seepage or runoff into groundwater sources.
In addition to prohibiting expansion, implementing phaseout plans for lagoons should also be considered. Those considerations, demanded by the North Carolina governor Jim Hunt all the way back in 1999, were agreed upon by Smithfield with little progress following after for the next two decades. Keeping this in mind, plenty of other methods to mitigate the effects of lagoons and sprayfields can be continually explored. One such method is to require that manure be injected or incorporated into the soil, rather than allowing it to be sprayed on fields. This would include regulations such as making sure manure would be absorbed at the rate it is applied and prohibited in sensitive areas, especially those close to communities.
Reforming livestock production can involve measures such as urging the FDA to regulate antibiotic use in livestock, and also involving more statewide measures to regulate what the EPA has overlooked. The Natural Resources Defense Group (NRDC) has developed permits that states could use to monitor and regulate factory farms that endanger the health of nearby communities and the environment. It is also important to be wary of the loopholes in policy that have made it possible for corporations such as Smithfield to affect so many through its practices. All of the suggestions listed above would ideally be mandated in the Clean Water Act and the permits it grants, and the EPA should be pushed to check on permits and quality checks. Another important area of focus should be public awareness, and the fact that local governments and residents must have a say in allowing factory farms to stay near their communities. They should also not have their rights restricted if they choose to take legal action, like what was seen with North Carolina residents. The actions of Smithfield and countless other factory farms across the nation are severely lowering the quality of life for many people and is a powerful example of environmental racism, considering the communities Smithfield is affecting. In order for lagoons to disappear, people need to recognize the issue for what it is and not allow industries to have more rights than people.
Emma Phillips is a fourth-year undergraduate student at NYU. She is a fellow at FFAC working to create a safer and greener future for the planet and its inhabitants.