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Know the West

Floyd brings on a hurricane of hog waste


Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article,"Can a hog farm bring home the bacon?"

Hurricane Floyd vividly demonstrated the downside to factory farming. Televised images of bloated hog and poultry carcasses and vivid accounts of a floating soup of agricultural, human and industrial contamination put the issue into sharp focus.

"This is a worst-case scenario of what we've been warning about for a long, long time," says Kathy Cochran, an agricultural economist in the Raleigh, N.C., office of the Environmental Defense Fund. Poor land-use planning, inadequate watershed management and the influx of vertically integrated pork and poultry conglomerates into eastern North Carolina's low-lying coastal plain made disaster inevitable, she says.

"We know that more than 50 hog lagoons were flooded and at least three were breached," says Ernie Seneca, a spokesman with the state's Division of Water Quality. "We've already seen oxygen droughts in some of the rivers' from nutrient runoff, says Seneca. "We expect to see some fish kills." The long-term environmental effects are impossible to gauge, he adds, "since we've never seen anything of this magnitude."

Floyd-generated flooding and contamination also destroyed more than $1 billion in crops and compromised drinking water supplies across much of North Carolina's eastern third.

While the hurricane's impact was dramatic, it may mask the broader issue of agriculture's impacts on groundwater and surface water. Despite a quarter-century of effort and billions of dollars spent under the Clean Water Act, about 40 percent of rivers and streams across the country are still unfit for fishing or swimming, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. As states such as North Carolina and Iowa have begun to impose moratoriums on new hog operations or invoked stricter anti-pollution measures, hog conglomerates have opened new mega-farms in Utah, Colorado and South Dakota.

* Andrew G. Wright, Engineering News-Record