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Lagoons, sprayfields should be converted into something more environmentally friendly

By Staff
(This editorial originally appeared in The Daily Reflector of Greenville.)
Hog farming may have a lengthy history in North Carolina, but it also boasts a smelly and unhealthy legacy. The pits used to collect waste from the animals — euphemistically called lagoons — produce by-products harmful to nearby residents, even in the best of conditions.
Last week, residents from 26 counties in eastern North Carolina held a vigil at the General Assembly to press for action of ending the environmentally unfriendly waste systems. That cannot come a moment too soon for those who endure the smell, and could prove to be a positive economic development initiative for the East deserving of further study.
Farming may be a rich and honored tradition in eastern North Carolina, but most of the region could do without one of its products. There are about 10 million swine in North Carolina and eastern counties are home to about 2,300 large industrial hog farms. These are massive operations that produce tons of waste and employ waste collection systems called lagoons, essentially large pits of excrement, and use sprayfields to distribute the wastewater on nearby farmland.
Concern about the treatment of hog waste is well founded. The lagoons pollute the air in nearby communities and produce an odor that can best be described as horrific. The sprayfields may be contaminating groundwater with nitrogen. And most eastern North Carolina residents will remember how flooding that followed Hurricane Floyd compromised several lagoons, causing the waste to spill over the banks in 1999.
In 1997, the Legislature moved to prohibit the construction of new lagoons and spray fields and extended that moratorium in 2001. An agreement in 2000 reached between the state and Smithfield Farms saw that company begin to phase out its use of the waste disposal system. And in 2007, the General Assembly finally banned the construction and expansion of the lagoon/sprayfield systems.
However, that provides little relief to those communities that still must endure the ill effects of nearby existing operations. That prompted a group of activists to hold a 51-hour vigil at the Legislature to urge lawmakers to take the next step and call on industrial hog operations to convert their waste systems to employ cleaner, available and more environmentally friendly technology.
There is ample reason to do so. The state should strive to improve the lives of its residents, and those in the East suffer the harm of these operations. It should work to protect the environment, a goal that would be served through the conversion of these lagoons and sprayfields. And a cleaner eastern North Carolina could act as an economic development tool, facilitating growth in a low-wealth region of the state.
North Carolina should not abide by these pollution time bombs any longer. The time for action — relief for the residents of the East — is long overdue.