State Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, says waste-handling operations at North Carolina hog farms functioned as intended in the flooding of Hurricane Florence. 

But state Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, has a different takeaway. “Short answer is that the lagoons haven’t held up well in Florence.” 

Repeated attempts to get comments and statistics from state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and N.C. Pork Council CEO Andy Curliss were unsuccessful. 

Forecasters predicted environmental disaster while Hurricane Florence was still days from the coast. Attention focused on the structural integrity of manure lagoons on large, inland hog farms in the storm’s path. State and national news reports and environmentalists warned public health could be at risk from lagoons breaching and releasing infectious bacteria. 

For the most part, Dixon told Carolina Journal Sept. 19, the lagoon system survived intact.  

Dixon said lagoons storing effluent and sludge that accumulates for later use as fertilizer is “the best sustainable system known to man.” Dixon said many media reports about hog farm impacts were deceptive or wrong, a claim also made by agriculture industry organizations such as Successful Farming. 

The previous day, Dixon, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, Troxler, and state Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan took a helicopter tour over storm-ravaged parts of the state.  

“When the flight was over we were sitting around talking. Michael said that he was surprised and amazed at how well the hog industry came through such a catastrophic event,” Dixon said. 

“We saw hundreds and hundreds of lagoons, some of them surrounded by water, but the lagoons still intact,” Dixon said. As of Sept. 19, he had heard of only one severe breach and spillage.  

A handful took on fresh water, he said, but impact was minimal because farmers reduced lagoon depths in advance of the storm. Fresh water is lighter than lagoon effluent and sludge, so it remains on top, and any overflow would contain lower amounts of hog waste. Farmers relocated about 20,000 hogs from flood-prone areas before the hurricane. 

“The release of raw sewage from municipalities … and anything else folks flush down the commode will be at least a million times greater than what little bit will be spillage from our hog facilities. Ultimately that will be a verifiable figure,” Dixon said.  

“DEQ is still in emergency response and does not yet have numbers on the volume of lagoon spills versus wastewater treatment plant spills,” said N.C. Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Bridget Munger. 

“Flooding has made it impossible to access many of the farms to assess damage. As water treatment plants return to normal operations, DEQ will be working with plant owners/operators to determine the extent and volume of spills. We will be posting that information to the DEQ Dashboard as it becomes available,” Munger said.  

According to DEQ statistics, five lagoons had some degree of structural damage, 32 overflowed, and 18 were at capacity. Harrison said the numbers are reason for additional concern about large-scale hog farms. 

“Air and water pollution from hog farms are a problem to neighbors and those who get their water downstream from these farms,” Harrison said.  

She bolstered her statement with a just-published study by Duke University researchers in the North Carolina Medical Journal that found higher incidence of some health ailments surrounding giant hog farms. They stopped short of linking the health issues to hog farms, but said more study is needed. 

About 20 years ago the state established hog farm performance standards and placed a moratorium on new or expanded facilities that don’t meet those standards, Harrison said. Those included a prohibition on building in the flood plain.   

“Unfortunately, the legislation didn’t require existing farms to meet the higher standards, and Hurricanes Matthew and Florence have shown us why this is a problem,” Harrison said, warning that climate change will increase the frequency of such storms.  

She called for better methods to manage waste from industrial-scale hog farms and thinks it’s imperative to use buyouts or other incentives to remove the 62 farms in the 100-year flood plain.   

“Several of my colleagues and I continue to file legislation mandating a phase-out of all hog lagoons by a date certain. There is better technology out there,” Harrison said.  

Environmentalists and renewable energy enthusiasts prefer methane gas recovery from swine waste to the current lagoon setup. On-site turbines can convert the gas into electricity and generate carbon tax credits. In Dixon’s home county, several hog farms are sending methane directly to Duke Energy facilities. Utilities are under state mandate to produce 0.2 percent of energy sales from hog waste by 2021. 

Another alternative is to place waste pits below hog houses, periodically extract it, and inject it into fields. Dixon said that requires far greater amounts of land than lagoons, isn’t as healthy for the animals, and would be more expensive. 

Some lawmakers are talking about legislation to revive a shuttered renewable tax credit program, but focusing on hog farms instead of wind and solar.  

“It won’t come from me,” Dixon said.  

“I don’t think there will be any serious discussions,” he said. “A handout is never beneficial to anybody,” and alternatives to lagoons require tax or carbon credits to be viable.  

Dixon supports alternative waste management methods, as a supplement to current methods. “But it never, ever will be either desirable or economically feasible to replace this with any kind of other thing if we want sausage, and pork chops, and tender loin at below $25 a pound.”