Opportunities, risks could grow with proposed hog farm rules

North Carolina is the undisputed Boss Hog on the East Coast, the nation’s No. 2 pork-producing state with upward of 10 million pigs raised in industrial-sized feedlots.

Georgia ranks No. 24 with only 200,000 farm-raised hogs. But the state is considering grabbing a bigger piece of the porcine pie by allowing farmers to vastly increase hog production.

With greater revenue, though, comes greater possibility of environmental damage, as happened twice during the 1990s in North Carolina. Storms burst open waste lagoons, flooding Eastern North Carolina streams and fields with pig urine and excrement. Millions of fish died, groundwater was poisoned and the state’s legislators, in response, prohibited new, large-scale hog farming.

Proposed rules in Georgia, if passed, would allow nearly a doubling of the size of farmers’ herds – as many as 12,500 hogs weighing 55 pounds or more per farm. Hog farmers and their supporters say it is a manageable number without ruining the land.

Environmentalists envision armies of hogs and oceans of manure across rural Georgia, especially as global demand for pork, from China in particular, skyrockets.

“Expansion of the swine industry in the U.S. has got to go somewhere other than North Carolina, and it’s a strong possibility that it will be pushed to Georgia if we relax our rules,” said Gordon Rogers, the riverkeeper along the Flint River. “And the experiences in North Carolina show that the environmental problems are chronic.” They also can hit close to home. An abandoned lagoon near Cleveland, Ga., about 70 miles north of Atlanta, was breached last week and sent more than 6 million gallons of hog urine into a creek that feeds the Chattahoochee River.

Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources was scheduled to vote Tuesday on the proposed rules, but it postponed action amid outcry from the public and environmental groups. The DNR could revisit the rule changes next year.

By then it should be well-versed in a 2011 federal report that concluded Georgia’s current monitoring of hog production “is failing to protect water quality.” Hogwash, says Terry Danforth, who raises as many as 7,500 hogs at a time and says he has never experienced lagoon spillage, groundwater contamination or regulatory reprimand at his Nashville farm 200 miles south of Atlanta. His grandkids, in fact, swim in a pond just a stone’s throw from two football-field-sized waste lagoons. The pond teems with wildlife, including catfish, bream and bass.

“They keep trying to compare us to North Carolina, but we don’t want to be North Carolina,” said Danforth, 53, who would like to raise 12,500 hogs. “We are not these evil people.” In position to grow Americans consume an average of 60 pounds of pork per person per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an amount that’s been falling for 15 years. The Chinese, on the other hand, with a booming middle-class appetite for meat and protein, eat 89 pounds on a per capita annual basis, up from 87 pounds last year.

One of every four U.S. hogs is exported, the USDA says, and pork exports should grow 4 percent next year.

China is betting big on U.S. pork. Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. shelled out $4.7 billion in May to buy Smithfield Foods, this country’s largest pork producer.

“This transaction creates a terrific opportunity through growth in exports for U.S. hog farmers to expand production to meet the growing Chinese demand,” Smithfield CEO Larry Pope told Congress in July.

Smithfield, though, can only expand so much in North Carolina, where it owns hog farms and the nation’s largest pig processing plant. North Carolina legislators prohibited the expansion of industrial-sized hog operations in 2007. They also limited new farms to 250 hogs and banned new waste lagoons.

South Carolina prohibits lagoons on new or expanding farms with more than 3,300 hogs.

Georgia, meanwhile, is considering expanding the size of its hog farms and allowing more lagoons. Environmentalists say it’s no coincidence.

“For these hog operations to expand and be profitable, they really need to have a corporation like Smithfield that they can contract with to process, market and distribute their meat,” said Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, the executive director of Atlanta-based GreenLaw, a nonprofit fighting hog farm growth.

Smithfield runs a packaging plant in Cumming, but it doesn’t own any hog farms in Georgia. A spokeswoman said the company has “nothing to announce at this time” regarding expansion.

Fewer rules, more hogs Georgia farmers raised 201,042 pigs last year worth $171 million, according to the University of Georgia. A decade earlier, they raised half as many.

Farmers currently can raise as many as 7,500 hogs (weighing at least 55 pounds) at a time if they store the waste in lagoons and spray it on nearby fields, typically as fertilizer. Any farm that wants to grow more hogs must use airtight lagoons and inject the waste underground. None currently do.

Fewer than a dozen farmers, including Danforth, are currently permitted to raise as many as 7,500 hogs. An additional 43 farms are permitted to raise as many as 2,500 hogs, according to the DNR.

Both sides agree the curbs placed on Georgia hog farms have largely done their part in controlling the farms’ growth while balancing environmental concerns. But the current limits are not scientific, said Jud Turner, the director of the DNR’s Environmental Protection Division, which helps police the farms.

“We’ve had 12 years of experience,” Turner said. “We’ve got family farms that have been doing a good job.” The agency proposed allowing farmers as many as 12,500 hogs – like North Carolina – without having to build airtight lagoons or injecting waste below ground, regulations considered too expensive.

Elsie Herring lives next to a hog farm in Wallace, N.C. The farmer’s lagoon and hog sheds are one-third of a mile from her home. The edge of the farmer’s spray field is eight feet from her house.

“You’re breathing in the animal waste and urine – it takes your breath away, makes your eyes run, your throat itch, and you’re gagging,” said Herring, who retired on the property her grandfather bought in the late 1890s. “We can’t open the windows and doors whenever he’s spraying. And when the wind is blowing, it blows on our house.” Herring joined nearly 600 other residents of Eastern North Carolina last summer in notifying Smithfield that they intend to sue over the stench, claiming the flies and pollution deprive them of the enjoyment of their property.

A Smithfield spokeswoman has said “we are evaluating the notices and will respond in due course.”

In 1995, a hog lagoon in North Carolina’s Onslow County overflowed, dumping 20 million gallons of waste into the New River and killing 3,000 fish. Hurricane Floyd hit four years later, causing lagoons to breach dams and sending more than 100 million gallons of waste into waterways and contaminating wells.

“It can easily happen here, too,” said GreenLaw’s Benfield. “All it takes is a large hog operation and a heavy rainfall. That’s a dangerous combination.” Melony Wilson, a UGA animal waste specialist, told state officials last month that if Georgia ups the hog quota, “operations will still be highly regulated and will limit the risk to water quality.” But sometimes accidents happen.

Last week near Cleveland, Ga., a bulldozer gashed a 2.4-acre lagoon and sent between 6 million and 7 million gallons of hog urine into Mossy Creek, according to the DNR. The creek runs into the Chattahoochee River, Atlanta’s main water source. No fish died as a result of the spill.

Two years ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported, after investigating 48 industrial-sized hog, cow and chicken farms, that Georgia’s water quality faced “a significant risk.” Nearly three-fourths of the farms operated without federal discharge permits or didn’t have adequate waste spray plans. The EPA “found significant deficiencies” in the state’s monitoring of the farms. It also cited Georgia’s Agriculture Department for failure to assess whether farms properly complied with their permits.

“As a result of inadequate oversight and reporting,” the report stated, “Georgia’s waters are vulnerable to discharges of animal waste.” Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black declined to comment. Kevin Chambers, a DNR spokesman, contested some of the findings and pointed out that the EPA didn’t find any water quality problems linked to big farms. The state, nonetheless, bolstered training and revised inspection checklists.