06/24/07 — Study will look at how hog farms affect air quality

View Archive

Study will look at how hog farms affect air quality

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 24, 2007 2:00 AM

For years, the effect of North Carolina's swine industry on the state's water quality and what to do about it has been hotly debated.

Ten years ago a moratorium was placed on the building of new lagoon and spray field operations -- the typical manner for dealing with hog manure. Earlier this year, the General Assembly took steps to make that moratorium permanent.

Now another concern is being voiced by a Duplin County community action group called the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH).

At the Duplin County Board of Commissioners meeting Monday, REACH Executive Director Dolutha Baron-Hall introduced her group and its new mission -- the Duplin Environmental Health Awareness Project.

Based in Warsaw, the organization, which was founded two-and-a-half years ago has received a three-year, $100,000 Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem Solving Grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to look at the health effects of air pollution from hog farms.

According to the EPA, under the terms of the grant, REACH will "work with local hog operations to use new technologies that will eliminate the need for lagoons and spray fields; or work with local hog operations to get them to comply with state guidelines for operating spray fields."

The goal, Mrs. Hall said, is to work with the hog industry and the hog farmers to find a mutually acceptable way to address this problem.

"Nobody wants to hurt the hog industry. We just don't want the industry to hurt us either," she said. "All we're saying is let's talk about it.

"Our ultimate goal is the elimination of any illness that might be caused by the effects of the hog farm lagoons and spray fields. That's a pretty huge goal, but we've got a problem. So let's sit down and talk about it and come up with some possible solutions that will be meaningful and protect people's health and protect the industry."

Mrs. Hall, who has lived in Duplin County for 10 years, said she noticed the smell of the hog farms on her very first visit.

Since then, she continued, "I realized it was harming my health and everybody's near it. The effects of it are hazardous to people's health."

To back up her claims, she's turned to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for help.

The problem, explained Rachel Avery Horton, a doctorate student in the School of Public Health, Epidemiology Department, is two-fold, according to peer-reviewed research done between 2000 and 2007.

"People of color and poor people are more likely to live near or attend schools near industrial hog farms. Thus, exposure to pollution from industrial hog farms is not equitable," she wrote in an e-mail. "Many health effects documented in people living near industrial hog farms mirror the health effects documented in people who work in the industrial hog farms.

"Adverse health effects in communities exposed to air pollution from industrial hog farms can be divided into the following general categories: headache, upper and lower respiratory symptoms, astham symptoms, mucous membrane irritation and decreased lung function."

REACH, Hall said, has produced a video showing Duplin County residents complaining of such ailments that they attribute to contamination from lagoons and sprayfields.

However, Ila Davis with the Duplin County Health Department, said that in her four years as director, they've never had a reported case of anybody complaining about exposure to a hog farm contributing to an illness.

Ed Emory, director of Duplin County's Cooperative Extension Service, also questioned the group's goals of working with hog farmers to implement new technologies and ensuring they're following state guidelines as perhaps being a little misguided.

"The hog industry in North Carolina is heavily regulated," he said. "If there are any health problems or environmental problems, there are channels to report those."

And none, he said, have been reported in Duplin County.

He also noted that "millions of dollars" have been spent to develop alternative technologies, but that as of yet, none are cost-effective enough to be put to use -- even with the General Assembly offering possible assistance.

But despite the criticisms, Don Butler, director of government relations and public affairs for Warsaw-based Murphy-Brown LLC, said he thinks the industry will be willing to sit down at the table with REACH as it works through this grant over the next three years.

"We've spoken with them in a meeting setting and heard what they had to say at the Duplin County Commissioners meeting," Butler said. "And I think the group, however well-intentioned, has made a number of claims that I don't believe are supported with good facts. The folks involved in livestock production can deal with factual information, but it's very frustrating for us to deal with charges we feel are unsubstantiated.

"But I'm sure there will be more discussions. Livestock producers are willing to engage in an intellectually honest discussion."