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CoastLine: Do Hog CAFOs Impact Water Quality of Nearby Streams & Estuaries?

Wendee Nicole
Environ Health Perspect 121:A182-A189 (2013). http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.121-a182 [online 01 June 2013]
a pipe discharging hog waste into a lagoon

The business of pork production in North Carolina employed nearly 13,000 people in 2012.  That’s according to a Duke University report.  The swine industry is a key component of North Carolina’s economy.  But there are claims of negative impacts on the environment – specifically on bodies of waters that are in close proximity to concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs.  And there are questions about the industry’s impact on human health. 

But the business of hog farming has evolved over the last several decades. 


Cindy Watson served two terms as the North Carolina Representative for District 10, which, at the time, included parts of Duplin, Jones, and Onslow Counties.  During those years, 1994 – 1998, Cindy Watson co-sponsored legislation that would institute a moratorium on new pork production operations and phase out the lagoons that are part of the hog production construct.  In 2004, she won the John F. Kennedy Profiles In Courage Award for getting that legislation passed in the face of fierce opposition.

Kraig Westerbeek, Vice President of Environmental and Engineering forSmithfield Hog Production Group

Michael MallinResearch Professor, Center for Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina - Wilmington

William Showers, Professor, North Carolina State University, Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences; Chief Scientist, GeoSolutions, LLC


Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Cindy Watson, it was 1997—nearly twenty years ago—that you sponsored this legislation that would phase out hog lagoons and also that instituted this moratorium on large-scale hog farming operations. How did the legislation change the hog industry in the state? What did that mean in a practical sense?

Cindy Watson: I think practically, from what we see, the moratorium has certainly secured the family farms by not having more in production. We were just going at such a fast rate—so many complaints, lots of damage that I investigated, not all farms, but not all farmers have the same amount of money nor do they have the expertise to run those farms, maybe some of them had them as second jobs. I learned a lot from a little group of citizens called ARSI. They were the Alliance for a Responsible Farm Industry—just a lot of individuals who had grouped together and had videos and things that gave me some education that there was another side other than an economic side, so that’s how we began.

RLH: So it was this small group of citizens that started to educate you about some of the concerns that people had. But you didn’t start out with the hog industry really being within your wheelhouse. How did you even get on this path in the first place as a state legislator?

Cindy Watson: Oh my goodness, no. I was going up to create, first of all, a two party system within the state. We had had a hundred years of one reign, and someone had asked me, would I just put my name in? Because I had worked with the Republican party after my husband and I graduated and lived in Wake County. I was involved with Jim Gardner’s campaign to Congress back in 1968. But other than just civic work, I’d never been involved in politics anyway. But there were just so many things missing for our kids after we’d moved from Raleigh to Rose Hill in the education system and in our health care, and they were my two things and turning the lights on east of I-95 for jobs—jobs other than just the ag jobs. They were the main reasons for me consenting to run. And not only did I have to run once, I had to run twice. So, once I was there, these groups came to Raleigh, and these groups invited me as their representative to share with me their negative impact from the lagoon systems. And then I began doing my homework on my days off on Monday. I would go to the hog farms. I looked at several places that had systems other than the lagoon. I was privileged to go to South Carolina, Iowa, Missouri, and Oklahoma to see other states that had implemented other systems. And I certainly had a lot of conversation with the industry. I met them in their office, each one of them, and any knowledge I had of the systems, I put on their desks. I really did not know that there was a problem that even existed because so many of the people were hog farmers that had asked me to run.

RLH: So back then, what were some of the differences in the way North Carolina hog farms operated compared to other states?

Cindy Watson: One of the systems in South Carolina used ozone in their method of purifying the air, which has been used for eons, I understand. We were looking at some of them out of state into the water reuse—cleansing the water and then reusing it. One of our farms in Duplin had a greenhouse, and they would take in the sludge out after they cleansed their water with ozone and had a greenhouse out there and were using the results and the manure as a good fertilizer. So, I think a lot of things were going on, but the sites that I had to visit just had problems, I think, because there was not enough distance between where the lagoon was, and it was being sprayed on someone’s clothes out on the line. A lot of rural people hang their clothes on the line. And it was on their property, on their screened-in porches; they didn’t have air conditioning. I remember one family down in the Wallace area that really was in a bad situation, and I worked with some of the industry people from the company before you [Kraig Westerbeek] were there. I called Murphy Family. Whoever had that problem, I tried to work with them to get them to work with me. And the one thing that I was seeing so many times, people had made an investment in their farms, were using the lagoon systems, but then they’d go to work somewhere else and there was no one left there at that time when some of the lagoons would run into the road ditches or spray or have problems. So, the first thing I decided to do was run a bill on the responsibility, and I wanted the owners and the operator of that lagoon system to take responsibility, but the owners did not want to have their name as part of it, but since they owned the hogs and basically the farmer owns the mortgage and the manure. You know, the corporate people—as I say, corporate, they say they’re family farms—owned the hogs and told you how to grow them and what house to grow them. And they had chosen the lagoon system because that’s what NC State had told them twenty years prior to that, when they began, was the better system, which did not appear to me to be so. I didn’t think that system, in my own opinion, was a sustainable system for twenty or thirty years.

RLH: Kraig Westerbeek of Smithfield Hog Production, you probably weren’t with the company twenty years ago. Is that correct?

Kraig Westerbeek: I actually began in 1993.

RLH: Oh, okay, so you were. So just taking a snapshot of the last twenty years, how has the hog production practice—the practice of this with the lagoons and the spray fields—how has it changed in the last twenty years?

Kraig Westerbeek: I think Ms. Watson is talking about a time where there was rapid expansion of the industry. That ended with the moratorium in 1996. There hasn’t been a farm built since then. The question was asked or the statement was made, you know, how do other folks in other parts of the country deal with manure? The fact of the matter is, we have operations in other parts of the country as well, and one thing that we do here in North Carolina that’s not done in some other areas is actually the manure is treated by an anaerobic lagoon. If you look back to that time period, certainly there were opportunities for the industry to improve upon what they were doing. The industry, I don’t think, has fought the moratorium since then or asked that it be rescinded. I think during that twenty-year time, what you’ve had is folks becoming more and more comfortable managing the anaerobic system that they have and the land application system, and they’ve become very, very good at it.

RLH: So, for folks who aren’t familiar with the basic construct of a large hog farming operation, we’ve heard the term “lagoon” and we’ve heard the term “spray field,” Kraig Westerbeek, can you just tell us briefly how that works? The hogs are housed in a structure—

Kraig Westerbeek: Correct, and the animals’ living area, the area where they live, there’s a slotted floor. Their manure falls through that floor and then it is flushed to an anaerobic lagoon—that was designed by criteria established by NC State and other folks with expertise—to digest that waste. The lagoons are sized based on the number of animals that are going to be housed at that facility. Also, it provides for storage of that manure—that treated manure after anaerobic digestion—for up to six months.

RLH: And what does anaerobic digestion mean?

Kraig Westerbeek: Anaerobic digestion, I tell folks many times, if you think about your stomach as a digester—obviously animals have stomachs as well, but—anaerobic bacteria will grow and digest volatile solids or organic solids from the manure, and they will basically liquefy that manure into a much more stable product.

RLH: And that’s what goes into the lagoon—

Kraig Westerbeek: No, that’s the product after. When it goes into the lagoon, it is raw manure, but it is digested into something different.

RLH: So that’s the process that happens when it’s in the lagoon. And then where does it go from the lagoon?

Kraig Westerbeek: Farmers have to analyze that manure after it’s digested, and it’s land-applied onto crops that are being grown on that farmer’s facility. So, the amount of crops, the type of crops is prescribed in our nutrient-management plan and their permit. They have to analyze that treated manure on a very regular basis, up to six times per year. They utilize that to determine how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that they are applying to those crops. It is a function of the permit that they cannot apply any more of those materials then that crop and that soil type and so forth can absorb, take up, and make into other products like grass, grain, corn, soybeans, wheat, those sort of things.

RLH: Mike Mallin, you have said that swine waste—and poultry waste, as a matter of fact—should be treated and regulated the same way that human waste is treated before leaving a facility. Why do you say these waste streams are similar, and what impact do you think that swine waste is having on neighboring bodies of water?

Mike Mallin: How I got into this particular line of research started back in the 1990s when we had several spectacular lagoon failures, and these were both swine and also a poultry egg-laying facility there as well. Caused deaths of fish, polluted many, many miles of stream and so on with high levels of nutrients—nitrogen and phosphorous and especially fecal bacteria. So we published those results in a number of technical journals. In more recent years, we’ve been doing more intense studies on individual watersheds so we can see what’s happening day to day in terms of pollutant releases into the environment. In a nutshell, what we find is that, in areas like the northeast Cape Fear River basin, especially Duplin County, the soils there are typically very porous, meaning that the water—rainwater and spray water—trickles down rapidly. Also, the water table is high. So when you have a combination of high water table and porous soils, when you add a pollutant in a liquid form, it’s going to very rapidly reach the water table and go move into the nearest stream. That’s exactly what we’ve found is occurring in Duplin County.

RLH: I noticed that in some of your earlier papers that you published, the papers in the 1990s, you start out with some pretty catastrophic rain events, large rain events like big storms and hurricanes. Are you saying that this happens not only during large rain events but just as a matter of course in a normal season of weather?

Mike Mallin: That’s correct. Like I said earlier, the lagoon failures earlier on were generally connected with very, very heavy periods of rainfall and hurricanes as well. But when you sample on a day to day basis— We did sampling in 2013, in fact, and we found excessive levels of ammonia, nitrate, and fecal coliform bacteria in the streams that are adjoining these swine spray fields.

RLH: Kraig Westerbeek, this is something that you take issue with. You say that there is analysis done of the soil and how much the crops can actually absorb and farmers are not allowed to spray more than what can be absorbed by the crops. So, when you think about the research that Mike Mallin has done, how do you respond to that?

Kraig Westerbeek: Well, all of agriculture relies on nutrient applications to promote crop growth, so if you take issue with the soils in Duplin County with regards to their porosity or high water table, they’re fertilized by commercial fertilizer the same way they’re fertilized by swine manure effluent, as we’ve discussed. The difference is that a swine farm is regulated with regards to the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium they can apply. And it’s very regulated dependent upon the crop being grown and the yield being grown. The rate at which it’s applied is called an agronomic rate. So when you look at watersheds in Duplin County, I don’t want people to get the impression that they’re dominated by swine manure application. That’s not the case. There’s more land that commercial fertilizer is applied to or poultry manure or other things. So, from that standpoint, I feel very comfortable with our system and the way we manage nutrients on our farm at agronomic rates to our crops.

RLH: There was a United States Geological Survey (USGS) study that was published last year. Mike and Bill Showers of NC State, you’re both familiar with this study, I understand. And this actually showed that there was an impact on neighboring streams and estuaries by these concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Am I concluding properly from that study? Mike Mallin?

Mike Mallin: It’s not either of our study, and the author of the study [Stephen Harden] is not here, so we cannot speak to it without his presence, I wouldn’t think.

RLH: Bill Showers, you actually published a criticism of that study. I should note that you were hired by the North Carolina Pork Council to do that, but you took issue with some of the methodologies of that study. Is that correct?

Bill Showers: Well, Steve Harden is actually one of our students from NC State. I do want to say that the USGS is a first-rate institution. If they sample a stream and say the pH is 8.1, you can bet your bottom dollar the pH is 8.1. They’re some of the best hydrologists in the country, and they have a stellar reputation. Steve’s study, I think, suffered from lack of funding. He wasn’t able to do everything that he wanted to do. For example, sampling. They sampled bi-monthly. It’s kind of like looking at a movie that runs for a year, and instead of eight frames per second, it’s one frame for every fifteen minutes. So he had six or eight of those frames. When you under-sample like that, you can come up with biases.

RLH: We spoke to him, actually, before this program, and he said that this was one of the wider ranging studies, at least from a geographic standpoint, which isn’t chronological, obviously, but he said that there was more data in this study than there had been in previous studies of its kind.

Bill Showers: That’s true. They went for spatial coverage of the entire state instead of focusing on a smaller number of watersheds and doing more intensive sampling. I think the data that they produced is first-class. When we looked at the data, what we did was we got the poultry and swine population numbers from the state veterinary office, which they did not have, and when we plotted that data against the watershed data, there was no correlation between number of animals and water quality parameters that they measured, specifically nitrogen, organic nitrogen, and ammonia. So that kind of puzzled us. We have been looking at buffers in my research program. When we looked at the USGS study watersheds and did the spatial analysis, what we did find was that their data actually better correlated with the quality and type of buffers than it did to the animal numbers. Now, what you have to realize is, swine CAFOs make up a small percentage of the entire land area in these watersheds. In fact, cultivated land in the USGS watersheds varied from about 6-58%. The swine CAFOs make up about 10-15% of that. The poultry CAFOs make up maybe 10-15% of the cultivated land, which is a small component of the entire watershed. So, I kind of look at things a little differently. I look at things from the river point of view. I’m not an agronomist. I’m an isotrope hydrologist. When we looked at it from a hydrology point of view, it seemed that the buffers—specifically the critical buffers, which is where cultivated land is within the river buffer, one hundred foot zone, not underlain by wetlands—is what controlled water quality. So, you know, some people like Mike, they look at it like it’s a source function. What we look at it as is a transportation and a consumption function. That seems to correlate not only to the watersheds that the USGS looked at but other watersheds that we’ve studied as well.

RLH: Are you concerned about the effects of CAFOs on nearby streams and estuaries? Is there cause for concern about that?

Bill Showers: I’m concerned about all types of agriculture in a watershed that’s got 40-70% cultivated land. I think we’re all concerned. Like Mike, I got into this when we had a number of fish kills in the 1990s. We had a summit that was called by the governor. A number of scientists went to Raleigh, and we sat in a room on Jones Street, and everybody offered their opinions. Hans Pearl said we need to reduce the nitrogen flux by 30%. The question was, we didn’t even know what the nitrogen flux was in those days. So, a number of us started studying the transportation across landscapes of nutrients. You know, swine, poultry, they make up a component of everything that makes it into the river. So, the exciting thing about this critical buffer finding is that we don’t have to repair all buffers. We just have to repair the ones where most of the leaking is occurring into the aquatic ecosystem to make a difference. In other words, we can get more bang for our buck by concentrating on critical areas in the watersheds.

RLH: And how do you define a buffer?

Bill Showers: Well, that’s a good question. You define it as two hundred feet from the stream, one hundred feet, fifty feet. In the 1970s, buffers were offered up as the solution to water quality problems. Wendell Gilliam at NC State and others worked on that. And then, as people continued to work on buffers, they found that not all buffers are equal. Some buffers rapidly attenuate nutrients and bacteria. Other buffers seem to leak, and Mike was alluding to that when he talked about the porous nature of some buffers. But there’s been this huge advance in spatial analytical techniques, where we can apply multiple data sets—soils, engineering properties, mechanical properties, and we have Lidar data. It turns out that a lot of the definition of where we think rivers are, aren’t there anymore because during Floyd, all the rivers were recut on the coastal plain.

RLH: And Floyd was what year?

Mike Mallin: 1999.

Bill Showers: And so, with these new Lidar data that we have to define flood zones, we can actually use that on the coastal plain to define the river drainages. So if you use the old data sets, you don’t really know where the critical buffers are, so there’s a lot of work that has to go into this in terms of spatial analytical techniques that have been developed over the last five years.

Mike Mallin: One thing that’s very problematic is that, right now, there are no required buffers in the Cape Fear basin, which is the basin that’s richest in swine and poultry CAFOs in North Carolina and one of the richest in the United States, in fact. So, there’s no required buffers. That’s very unfortunate, going to Bill’s point. Another thing, I’d like to harken back to Kraig’s statement earlier. Kraig was talking about the nutrients at agronomic rates, but unfortunately, that does nothing for the fecal bacteria that leaks from the spray fields into the streams, like in this watershed that we worked on in Duplin County. What we found was that there was excessively high numbers of fecal bacteria that well exceeded any of the state criteria for impaired water, in the multiple thousands.

RLH: That exceeded the state criteria, which means a regulatory agency should have stepped in at that point?

Mike Mallin: Well, I believe the data has been submitted to them, so yeah, they can declare waters impaired based on various criteria. We did this sampling in this particular watershed—Stocking Head Creek—precisely by the Division of Water Quality standards. 

Kraig Westerbeek: Dr. Mallin suggested that there were no buffer requirements, and that’s not the case. There are buffer requirements and permits for swine CAFOs. There aren’t buffer requirements for folks that apply commercial fertilizer, and I can’t speak for the poultry industry because I’m not involved in that, but there are for swine CAFOs, particularly from blue line streams and from ditches as well. The other observation that I would make—and I think Dr. Mallin knows this—is that fecal bacteria is omnipresent in the environment, whether it’s beavers or deer or anything else that’s a warm-blooded animal can provide or produce and do produce fecal bacteria that could be measured in a stream. So, I’m not familiar with the study he’s talking about, but—

RLH: So you’re saying this is not necessarily fecal bacteria that came from a neighboring swine operation. Mike Mallin?

Mike Mallin: Well, we also sampled a number of watersheds in the Cape Fear, and we have control areas where there are virtually no CAFO operations, and the natural background levels of fecal bacteria are very low, and these that we discovered in the Stocking Head Creek were in the multiple, multiple thousands, inconsistently.

Bill Showers: I just wanted to mention that we have been looking at fecal coliforms as well as a suite of nutrients and ions, and they also seem to respond—the same way that nutrients do—to hydric soils. In other words, where you have wetlands, you will greatly reduce the order of magnitude of fecal coliform bacteria. This is one of the things that happened with the USGS study is, where do you sample in a watershed to be representative of the water quality in that watershed? And the truth of the matter is that the headlands have different water quality than the middle or the lower part. Because normally, the highlands don’t have as many wetland soils, and as you go down the watershed to where the receiving waters are, you get a lot more swamps, and if you’ve kayaked or canoed in the coastal plain, you know that to be true. So it’s really important where you sample in the watershed what your perceived water quality is.

Kraig Westerbeek: The last point I’d make on this, and I think Dr. Mallin would agree with this is the waters, and I just had a chance to glance at this, but they are considered swamp waters by NC DENR. So, they don’t have a coliform standard applied to them precisely because of the omnipresent nature of coliform bacteria in swamp waters.

RLH: Is that correct, Mike Mallin?

Mike Mallin: That’s not true. No, no, no.

RLH: You’ve talked about there being a movement afoot to reclassify some of these waters as swamp water. And you’re looking at me like you’re not sure what I’m talking about.

Mike Mallin: You’re talking about something very different.

RLH: Okay.

Mike Mallin: Yeah, you’re talking about an area in the lower Cape Fear. There’s a movement to reclassify that as swamp water. That has something to do with dissolved oxygen, nothing to do with fecal bacteria.

RLH: We have an email from Steve, who writes, “For the representative from Smithfield. What are the most common permit violations on the farms that you manage? And, what are the most serious permit violations than you have seen on the farm you manage?”

Kraig Westerbeek: Well, obviously the most serious violation would be a discharge, which is required by permit to be reported to the state, and they are. So, there’s a record of those, if folks want to go look, but there’s generally a very small number of them per year. The most common violation is a record-keeping violation. Farmers are required to track precisely the amount of nitrogen and nutrients they apply to their fields. That’s a very complex process, and they’ll have a large notebook full of records they’ve generated. If there happens to be some sort of error in calculation or something along those lines, that’s the most common violation that I see.

RLH: There’s been just a bit of miscommunication regarding Kraig Westerbeek’s point about swamp waters not being subject to fecal coliform bacteria standards. Mike Mallin, can you clarify that for our listeners?

Mike Mallin: The swamp water thing, there’s a different swamp water standard for dissolved oxygen, not for fecal bacteria. For fecal bacteria, what you have to do, what the state has to do, is sample five times within a thirty-day period, and if it exceeds the criteria, then it’s considered impaired waters, and this particular watershed that we worked on, we did it exactly that way and it exceeded the standard in both summer and fall.

RLH: So, if it exceeded the standard, what does that mean? Again, you said this data has been submitted to the regulatory agency, which in this case is North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality. When was that submitted? Where is it now? What do we know about that?

Mike Mallin: I don’t know where it stands at this moment.

Kraig Westerbeek: Once again, I’m not familiar with exactly what he’s talking about, but I think Mike would also acknowledge that the exceedance of the coliform standard occurs where there’s not CAFOs either—downstream of municipal systems, downstream of cities and those parking lots and all those sort of things. So, this is one case out of many cases that I’m sure the state would have to look at and see what caused it. As I understood, in the cause and effect, [what Mike Mallin is alleging] is that a swine CAFO caused that, and just looking briefly, that’s a very large watershed, and there could be a number of things that could cause that.

Mike Mallin: I will state that, absolutely, in the upper Cape Fear watershed, where there’s a lot of municipalities up there, the state has declared a number of streams there impaired for fecal bacteria. Now, in this particular watershed that we sampled, there’s over 100,000 hogs there and we estimated 1.3 million chickens, but there’s no point sources, there’s no municipalities in there. And as far as human dwellings with septic systems, there’s a total of 67 human dwellings there, so that’s, what, may 250 people living in at the place. So, there’s not really any other sources.

RLH: I just want to read an email from Gary, who writes, “Why is it that farmers are the only group who get blamed? Why don’t the Waterkeepers take on the real sources of pollution – like cities that dump sewage into our rivers during big rains?”

Kraig Westerbeek: I was actually going to comment on— We talk about impaired streams, and Dr. Mallin talked about impaired streams, one thing that really strikes me, if one would look at a map of impaired streams in North Carolina—and they all are highlighted, and I’ve seen such a map issued by DENR—one thing that really strikes you is there seems to be a big hole in southeastern North Carolina where there have been very few impairments identified by the state. Most of those impairments tend to be up towards the Piedmont region and around areas where there tends to be more human population. There is a large hole, if you look at southeastern North Carolina. In the area where the swine industry is located, there are not a lot of impaired watersheds that have been identified by the state in that area.

Bill Showers: That’s true. Most of the impairments are settlements up in the Piedmont region. We’ve sampled some of these same watersheds that Mike Mallin’s study looked at. We didn’t have the winter, spring, summer, fall sampling like Mike did, but we had more complete spatial coverage. What we noticed is that, as we go down the watershed, the number of wetlands increase and the amount of bacteria actually decrease. I looked at your paper briefly when we were sitting outside, and you had sampled up in the headlands, and that’s also where we also found the most numbers—not as many as Mike found, and they weren’t violating any standards. But as you go down the watershed, the buffers actually cleaned things up if they’re in hydric soils in our wetlands, and that’s why these buffers are so critical, they have to be maintained or mediated.

RLH: We have a question from Robert, who writes, “Are all the chemicals that are ingested by the hogs absorbed by the plants or do they leach into the groundwater? And do they test the drinking water wells from downstream or neighboring these spray fields?”

Kraig Westerbeek: We test our wells on the farms, which are the closest wells to the farms themselves. I’m not sure exactly what type of chemicals he might be referring to. If he’s referring to nitrogen phosphorous and NP&K [nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K)], which I would assume, you know, every well that’s installed in North Carolina now as of several years ago has to be tested. I’m on the Duplin County Board of Health. We had a program for years where wells could be tested, and many, many, many were. So, from that standpoint, the answer to that question is, ‘Yes.’

RLH: We have a comment from Jim, who writes: “My wife and I became vegetarians after reading ‘Fast Food Nation’ when we learned about the meat and poultry industry 20 years ago. We would occasionally break down and eat pulled pork BBQ when we vacationed on the Outer Bans.  However, when we moved to North Carolina and learned about the damage of hog farming, we gave up BBQ completely.”

There is a requirement by the DEQ—that’s the regulatory agency in the state, the Department of Environmental Quality—for water quality testing. That’s a visual test. Bill Showers, can you explain that visual test, and how that works?

Bill Showers: I know DEQ rates streams in terms of meeting their intended purpose. So there are various standards depending upon the intended purpose of a stream, lake, or water body. If it’s drinkable, swimmable, or recreational uses. It’s more than just a visual criteria. They look at the water chemistry as well as the animals that live in the stream, the ecology of the stream. The first thing to go, of course, are the benthic invertebrates. That’s usually an indicator of when stream health is not what it should be.

RLH: What kinds of innovative technologies are coming down the pike that could potentially lessen the impact of CAFOs on nearby streams and estuaries. Bill Showers, you also are the chief scientist at a company called GeoSolutions that looks at issues like this. Are there things in the works that are experimental or promising?

Bill Shower: That’s an excellent question, and the answer is yes. We have these new optical technologies that allow us to take samples out in the field every second, every five minutes, every fifteen minutes. I think one of the problems that we have in assessing water quality is an under-sampling bias, and I think Mike would agree. There’s never enough money for scientists to go out and get enough data—both spatially and temporally—to solve the problems. So we’ve always been frustrated with that, but now with these optical technologies, we may be able to get the amount of data that will not lead to these types of under-sampling biases.

RLH: So is it really just missing data? What happens in a circumstance when there’s been a lot of rain, and for that reason, a farmer can’t spray as much waste on the crops because the ground is saturated, and the lagoon is getting full. What does he do?

Kraig Westerbeek: That’s a very good question. If you look back in the early to mid-1990s, the answer was not something that we were very proud of, maybe. We just came through a chronic rainfall period, I think a six-month period that I have heard was the wettest, maybe second wettest on record, so when you look at the performance of these systems during that time period, I talked about there being storage built into this system, into the lagoon system. It’s a lot of storage, it’s six months of storage, and you can get into situations where you have a lot of rain and it becomes a challenging situation to the farmer, but I’m very pleased with the way pork producers handled that situation. They were able to hold their manure until we had drying times, and we have been very fortunate and blessed by god to have those in March and now through April, so farmers could make the application of nutrients and plant their crops. The fact of the matter is, they hold that manure because they have the storage. If you look at a lot of the other waste treatment facilities, they don’t have that type of storage, so they can be immediately inundated with a brief heavy rain of several inches. Our system is built to withstand those sort of rainfall events.

RLH: And what does the future look like for Smithfield in terms of practices because the fact is, there’s a moratorium on the number of these kinds of operations that can exist in the state. There’s a recognition that these kinds of operations can create problems for waterways and air pollution. What is Smithfield doing now to work toward evolving practices, to improve the situation for neighbors?

Kraig Westerbeek: I want to be very clear here that the system we have today, if properly managed, is a very, very good system. Now, I will answer your question though because I think it’s a very good question, and we have been extremely consistent in our answer. When we identify technologies that are both operationally efficient—as good or better than what we have today—and economically viable, then we’ll adopt those technologies. I think, when you look today, things that are very exciting for us are thing like manure-to-energy projects, and I think we have two or three of the largest manure-to-energy systems in the world in some of our operations here in North Carolina if you look at swine-manure-to-energy. And we continue to look at that, and we’re very excited, hopefully, to have a fairly large project to announce along those lines here fairly soon, but the economics certainly have to come along with that. We’re also very interested in water reuse. And finally, I think you can’t disregard the technology surrounding application and making sure that we’re having uniform application. We’ve gotten better and better at that through the years, and we continue to manage our facilities better, which I think pays dividends for everyone.

RLH: Cindy Watson, when you think about what’s happened in the hog industry over the last twenty years since the moratorium was passed in 1997, how do you feel about where we are now? Is there anything that you would like to see changed?

Cindy Watson: I would like to see the lagoon system change. That was the whole thing, and Dr. Mallin was one of my scientists that I relied on information from him when I was there. Another paper that was put out from our county in Duplin by soil and water that state gave me, is that back in 1990 before I even came there, that our ground was totally, 100% saturated with copper, zinc, and nitrogen. We’re #1 or #2, maybe—we’re #2 in hogs and we were at that time 18 years ago, and #1 or #2 in broiler production and turkeys, and not to mention the row crops, and I mean, nitrogen is nitrogen, whether it comes out of a bag or out of our ten million hogs in maybe three or four counties, and the amount that was given to me by NC State and showed the dots on it with the numbers of CAFOs in our area was just alarming, but the science was there and the scientists were giving us information. There was someone at East Carolina that was working on our water aquifer, you know, because of the amount of usage and it being down. These were the things that I initiated because I thought, “First of all, we’ve got to find somebody responsible for this lagoon, that they keep calling my office twelve and fifteen times a day and night.” And every time I’d get the call, I’d call back to the companies, and of course, the attitude of the corporations or the companies back then toward me was that I was against them, and I wasn’t against anybody. I think we ought to be growing more hogs, if you need to do that, but not with this system.

RLH: Not with the lagoon system.

Cindy Watson: And that’s why I brought the moratorium so that the Department of Agriculture—and that was the part of the other bill—would come up within a year or so and we would even get money from the state or Feds to change it.

Bill Showers: I just want to mention that North Carolina actually is a very good place for agriculture and CAFOs. If you look at the Midwest, I have colleagues at the University of Iowa and Perdue, and they’re jealous of the water quality we have in our streams. The reason that we have good water quality is because of our prevalence of wetlands and our river buffers, and they don’t have that in the Midwest. Some of their streams are running eight, ten, or twelve milligrams of nitrate per liter, and there’s not a lot they can do about that. In North Carolina, if we can manage things right, we can preserve our water quality and our environmental quality, as well as increase our agriculture production. That’s the key here, is that we have this opportunity in North Carolina to do it right.


Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.