Environmental Justice Case Study: Hog Farming in North Carolina

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Above map of Halifax County, NC provided by Tiger Mapping Project, 1997.


Over the past decade, the number of hog producers in the state of North Carolina has fallen from 23,000 to 8,000, but the number of hogs in the state has nearly tripled. Large hog farming corporations have come into N.C. and have bought out smaller family farms, or have integrated with the smaller farms by providing hogs and materials in exchange for the use of the farmer's land. In this time, a population of 7 million hogs has invaded and taken over the land and lives of residents living in the one time tobacco capital of the state.

With many of the smaller tobacco growers dropping out of the market, an economic stimulus was needed in the area. That stimulus came in the form of hogs. North Carolina has swiftly moved out of the tenth position of top hog farming states and into the second position. And, with the swine industry accounting for roughly $1 billion annually for the people of North Carolina, the industry holds a considerable amount of political clout in government. Pulitzer Prize winners Joby Warrick and Pat Stith of the Raleigh based News and Observer write "Hog odor is by far the most emotional issue facing the pork industry-and the most divisive. Growers assert their right to earn a living; neighbors say they have a right to odor-free air. Hog company officials, meanwhile, accuse activists of exaggerating the problems to stir up opposition."

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Derl Walker is the Duplin County Commissioner, which is the second largest hog producing county in the United States. In February of 1995, the town of Faison held a town meeting to discuss whether or not people wanted a hog farm in their town. Even though in Duplin County the pigs-person ratio is 32 to 1, and even though the county's revenue from sales and property taxes has risen dramatically since the hogs have been around, the residents of Duplin feel that the costs of having hogs in their backyards far outweigh the benefits. The vote was a resounding NO.

The hogs live in metal confinement barns that have holding cells resembling a solitary confinement cell. They produce about 9.5 million tons of waste per year, which istwo to four times that of the average human. The manure and urine excreted by these hogs is stored in deeply dug out earthen pits that are called lagoons. These lagoons can be as large as 10 acres in surface area and 12 feet in depth. Swine industry officials use the liquid from these lagoons, which is high in the nitrogen, to fertilize the fields where the hogs graize. Officials from the N.C. Pork Producers Association claim that the use of lagoons as a holding tank for the swine manure to fertilize the fields is a "proven and effective way to keep harmful chemicals and bacteria out of water supplies." Nevertheless, studies done by North Carolina State University in Raleigh have shown differently.

The conventional wisdom about hog lagoons is that they are virtually leak proof. The idea behind the lagoon is to have the heavier sludge sink to the bottom and form a seal, preventing any liquid from escaping through the ground. The Division of Environmental Management testified that "lagoons will effectively self-seal within months with little or no groundwater contamination, even in sandy, highly permeable soils." However, one N.C. State University report estimates that "as many as half of the existing lagoons-perhaps hundreds-are leaking badly enough to contaminate groundwater."

The problems associated with lagoons on sand-based soils presents an especially serious problem in Eastern North Carolina, where sandy soils and a high water table are extremely succeptable to contamination of groundwater. The majority of rural residents take their water from shallow wells, and the effect on health this can cause is disturbing. Nevertheless, lagoons alone are not the only problem to groundwater contamination.

There are often extremely large spills from lagoons that are situated right next to a waterway. This has caused the deterioration of surface water quality from the excess of nitrogen rich manure in the water. The result of water pollution is eutrophication, which is when nitrogen nutrients cause the bloom of algae. The algae takes up oxygen in the water and eventually dies, consuming even more oxygen. This effectively suffocates fish and other marine life. Data has shown that Eastern N.C.'s waterways are carrying an overabundance of nitrogen, phosphorous, and other substances that pollute.

Unfortunately, the present regulations have not shown to be effective. The Department of Water Quality does an inspection of each farm once a year, and the Department of Environmental Management also does occasional inspections. However, one might claim that the regulatory climate of the hog industry is almost nonexistent. Fines are not significant enough to provide the farms with incentive to change their behavior, and the state government continues to cut regulations. Former Senator Murphy has led the charge by passing a series of laws advantageous to hog farms. He has sponsored and passed bills for the hog industry that include:

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Key Actors and Organizations

Pork Producers

Political Actors

Local Organizations

Universities and Media

1-Smithfield Foods Inc.(Anti-regulation)

1-Senator Lauch Faircloth (Anti-regulation)

1-Alliance for Responsible Swine Industry (Pro-regulation)

1-North Carolina State at Raleigh (Neutral)

2-Prestage Farms

2-State Representative John Nichols (Anti-regulation)

2-Halifax Environmental Loss Prevention (Pro-regulation)

2- University of North Carolina (Neutral)

3-Carroll's Foods

3-Governor Jim Hunt (Anti-regulation)

3-Neuse River Foundation (Pro-regulation)

3-Duke University (Neutral)

4-Goldsboro Milling

4-Former Senator Wendell Murphy (Anti-regulation)

4-Institute for Southern Studies (Pro-regulation)

4-News and Observer (Pro-regulation)

5-Murphy Family Farms

5-State Representative Howard J. Hunter (Pro-regulation)

5-Land Loss Prevention Fund (Pro-regulation)

6-N.C. Pork Producers Association

6-N.C. Board of Agriculture (Anti-regulation, maintaining Neutrality)

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Nature of the Struggle: Key Actors

Pork Industry

The N.C. Pork Producers political action committee has used a considerable amount of money to fight or to amend laws and regulations, sending this money to legislators in state government. Of the states 170 representatives, 92 of them had received campign money from pork interests in 1994.

Political Actors

It has also significantly helped the pork industry that there are a number of people in state government that are or have been hog farmers. Political figures in N.C. have been incredibly helpful in stopping any type of regulation.

Local Organizations and Environmental Groups

There has been a great effort put forth on the part of local groups in the form of involvement, organization, and action for the purpose of regulating the industry. These are the only resources these groups really have, for as Don Webb put it: "We're just poor people. We have no funds. Our funds are out of our back pockets." However, media involvement has been enormous thanks to The News and Observer.

Universities and Media

Another large help to the local residents has been researchers at the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Duke University. Although these universities are state funded and must promote an image of neutrality, their research has been in overwhelming support of regulation. The support of the News and Observer has been outstanding in the fight for regulation of the industry.

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The demographics of Halifax County will be used as a representative of the N.C. swine region.

Halifax County (1989)



725.219 sq miles

Total Population

55,516 people

Persons per sq mile

76.5 people

Percentage White


Percentage African-American


Median age

33.6 years

Per Capita Income


Total Households


Households Median Income


Percentage of Households Income < $14,999


Percentage of Persons Below Poverty Level

25.6% (13,802 people)

Percentage of population not graduated from highschool


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Strategies Used

The strategies used by those against the swine can best be analyzed when broken up into two parts: The macro scale and the micro scale. On the macro side is The News and Observer and on the micro side is the local organization.

The News and Observer

The News and Observer is a Raleigh based newspapar that between February 19 and 26, ran a five-part series describing the "pork revolution" in N.C. and how the state has aided the industry by relaxing regulations and by forming formal and informal alliances with the pork producers. The stories were a result of a seven month investigation that concentated on the question of "Who is in charge?" The stories cover everything from leaks and spills, to the effects of odor on communities, to who is recieving PAC money and how the representatives are voting. Pat Stith, Joby Warrick, and Melanie Sill won Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting on the swine issue.

As a result, early responses came in the form of letters and phone calls to representatives. Reps. summoned officials from the pork industry. Further, legislation with stricter regulation that had appeared dead a few days earlier was revived. In addition, the General Assembly set aside $1.5 million to fight hog pollution. Finally, more fines were levied and announced on hog farms violating discharge regulations.

Halifax Environmental Loss Prevention, HELP

On a local level, HELP fought the hog farms and won the fight. On December 18, 1991, the people of Halifax County read in the newspaper that 7 large hog farms were moving into the county. From the concern, HELP was organized. Halifax County is 50% African-American; however, where the farms were to be located the areas were 90% to 98% African-American. HELP was successful in convincing county commissioners in establishing an Ad Hoc committee based out of the Health Department. Within 6 months, the committee passed a livestock ordinance that caused 3 of the targeted 7 farms to not move in, and another 50 that had plans to move into the county were scared away by the ordinance. However, 4 corporations built farms before the ordinance was passed. They included Smithfield, Carroll's Foods, and Goldsboro Milling.

Since their early success, HELP has informed other communities of the environmental racism practiced by the government and the hog farms. HELP has done so through town meetings and a hog round table. The hog farm table brings together traditional environmental groups and community groups that have fought environmental racism, and has informed these groups of the hog issue. This has added a wealth of experience and information to the struggle.

HELP has also held protests and has spoken with legislators, resulting in ammendments to the ordinance to make regulations more stringent in the county. On Labor Day of 1992, HELP picketed the Community of Tillery's commerce department and mall, and leafletted the town for allowing "Hogtoberfest." "Hogtoberfest" was to welcome the hog corporations by throwing a pork feast at the town mall. The result of HELP's actions was a discontinuation of "Hogtoberfests." On September 1, 1996, HELP received a 4 year grant from the National Institute Of Environmental Health Sciences totalling over $657,000 to work with the local Halifax County Health Department and the Epidemiology Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With the money, the University will document health hazards and medical cases that can be attributed to the hog farming. And, the County Health Department will educate the medical community on environmental issues and signs that are often overlooked as causes of symptoms when doing examinations.

For more information on HELP, link above. Other local organizations have also been active in the battle against the hog farms, such as the Cape Fear River Watch and the Neuse River Foundation. These organizations have set up programs to put pressure on the hog farms to change their poisonous practices through better treatment of the waste, and through the siting and reporting of leaks and spills.

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Solutions to this conflict may involve allowing counties the right to zone areas for hog farming. Representative Howard Hunter has already introduced similar bills in the state house of reps. on this matter. In addition, larger buffer zones and riparian zones should be created to protect water quality. Hunter and other democratic legislators have drafted similar bills. Riparian zones would provide a filter for the nitrogen in manure as it makes its way towards bodies of water. The zones would be in the forms of trees, bushes, and nitrogen fixing plants. Hunter and others have received help from the Land Loss Prevention Fund and the Institute for Southern Studies. Also, local and state governments should begin requiring permits for lagoons, so that they be better monitored for pollution of groundwater and leakage. Currently, officials can only roughly predict the number of lagoons out there because they do not have to be registered. Also, waste management plans that were mandated in 1993 should be filed. The plans are to be complete by 1997, however only 52 out of about 2000 farms have filed plans. Finally, the state legislature should mandate communication between the Department of Agriculture and other agencies. Currently there is a control of information in the N.C. government concerning hog farms. The power is in the hands of only a few people.

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The strategy taken so far should be continued. The News and Observer has greatly furthered the cause to stop hog farms from polluting the land and lives of the people of Eastern North Carolina. Thanks to the newspaper's effort, the local organizations that had been fighting for so long without having their voices heard now have political and private ears listening to them. With the word out, perhaps more local organizations like HELP will be able to further their cause through an increase in grants, and the organizations need the money. The News and Observer should continue to do what they have been doing, and with the help of research from the universities, the local organizations will be able to achieve much more in the struggle for environmental justice.

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Key Contacts

Alliance for a Responsible Swine Industry - Don Webb: (919) 238-2684

Halifax Environmental Loss Prevention - Gary Grant: (919) 826-3244

Department of Water Quality - Lou Paletta: (919) 733-7015

For more contacts link here to:

1)1996 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service: News and Observer

2)North Carolina State University in Raleigh

3)University of North Carolina

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