Q&A with Rick Dove: Pollution impacting eastern N.C. health, economy
Environmental advocate Rick Dove will speak Tuesday, April 29, at Catawba College on “North Carolina’s Environment in the Eye of the Perfect Storm.” The 7 p.m. presentation, which is sponsored by the Center for the Environment, will be held in Tom Smith Auditorium in Ketner Hall.
Dove is a former Neuse Riverkeeper and Southeastern Representative for the Waterkeeper Alliance. He is a photo and video journalist who specializes in aerial and ground photography that documents sources of pollution.
His presentation is free and open to the public, but registration is required. To register, visit www.CenterForTheEnvironment.org.
Juanita Teschner, director of communications for the Center for the Environment, recently interviewed Dove. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: When did you first become aware of the pollution in North Carolina caused by hog waste?
A: Animal factory farm pollution is one of the many environmental issues we face in North Carolina. I’ve been following the hog and poultry pollution problems in North Carolina for over 20 years. I first became aware of this problem back in 1993, when I became the Riverkeeper for the Neuse River. It was then that I began looking for major sources of river pollution. I wanted to understand what was killing the fish and causing all the river’s algal blooms.
To see for myself, I got in an airplane and flew over eastern North Carolina. While thousands of flights would follow, that first flight over eastern North Carolina was all it took to convince me that the animal industry was having a huge impact on the health of our rivers. Storing millions upon millions of gallons of swine waste in open cesspools called lagoons, then spraying this raw waste onto fields as these so-called lagoons filled up, presented an almost unbelievable sight. Over and over again, I saw this waste running into rivers and streams as it was being sprayed onto fields.
North Carolina is the country’s second largest producer of hogs. But what’s critical to understand is that here in eastern North Carolina, we have the heaviest concentration of hogs in the world. We also have the world’s largest slaughterhouse. This horrific concentration has consequences. Once, these animals were spread out over the vast lands of America. Now, we have them shoehorned into a very tiny environmentally sensitive area of our state. Understanding the consequences associated with that is quite easy and very important.
Q: How big of an impact does it have?
A: I think it would surprise most people to learn that, based on an analysis done by Dr. Mark Sobsey of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the animal factories in eastern North Carolina are producing more fecal matter each day than is produced by the citizens in all these states combined: North Carolina, California, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, New Hampshire and North Dakota.
Dr. Sobsey devised a simple tool to help people understand the significance of how much fecal waste is being generated by swine. He compared the fecal waste produced by hogs to that of people. It came out to a 10-to-1 ratio. According to his analysis, a hog produces about 10 times the fecal waste of a human.
Q: So how does that affect the environment?
A: Heading east from where I-95 divides the state is one of the state’s most environmentally sensitive areas. It is full of wetlands, streams, creeks, rivers, and a high water table. In this small area of our state there are between 8 and 10 million pigs producing about the same amount of fecal waste that is produced by as much as 100 million people.
Imagine the public outcry if we were to bring the fecal waste of that many people into eastern North Carolina in tanker trucks and put it in open-air cesspools. Then, as these cesspools filled up, we allowed it to be spread onto heavily ditched fields that connected to rivers and streams.
The people would be outraged. They would say, “We’re not going to allow this,” and yet we are doing it with animal waste, which is essentially the same as human waste. The industry argues that the ratio is far less than 10 to 1. To that I say, what’s the point? It’s still way too much.
In large measure, the animal industries depend on the discharge of their animal waste as a part of their waste disposal system. This failed waste system has contributed to the death of approximately 2 billion fish in the Neuse River alone. Over a billion fish died in 1991 in a matter of a few days. This was the first horrific fish kill in the Neuse and it came right after the swine industry had significantly set up operations. These fish had open bleeding lesions all over their bodies. Some of the organisms that kill these fish are dinoflagellates. They can be very dangerous as they put neurotoxins in the water and air above the water’s surface.
Q: So that affects people’s nervous systems?
A: It can. Not only does it affect the nervous systems of fish and kills them, but a number of studies have shown that one of these dinoflagellates, Pfiesteria, can cause serious injury to people as well. It is an interesting subject, but our discussion should stay focused on what is causing these organisms to react the way they do as well as what human activity may be contributing to the problem.
What we learned is that when, from all the different sources, too much fertilizer is put into a river, nature goes out of balance. Then, oxygen levels drop, dangerous organisms begin to grow and the fish die in large numbers. It’s all connected to nutrient pollution, like the kind that comes from the hog and poultry industry. Their highly untreated waste contains viruses, bacteria, nitrogen, phosphorous, as well as many other dangerous substances. Poultry waste adds arsenic to the mix.
Q: What about the impact of industrial chicken and turkey farms?
A: We have nearly a billion chickens being produced in North Carolina. The number of turkeys ranges in the area of about 50 million. Industrial poultry and hog facilities are often located side by side. There is no other place in the country that I am aware of where this level of comingling is taking place. It can be a breeding ground for different forms of bacteria and viruses that can seriously impact public health.
On top of that is all the waste. Eastern North Carolina is literally sinking in a flood of animal waste. The problems in all of this should be painfully clear to everyone.
Q: How does the factory animal waste impact the air?
A: When you have this raw animal waste being stored in open-air cesspools in the hot summer sun of eastern North Carolina, dangerous gasses are emitted. The gasses come out of the confinement buildings and from lagoons and spray fields. Those gasses include methane, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and others that are very dangerous and can cause serious health problems. People need to understand that these facilities are located beside small towns and cities, where people live, work, play and pray. In most of our eastern counties — especially Duplin, Sampson, Johnston, Bladen, Green, Jones and Wilson — many people are surrounded by these factory farms. Many are too poor to be able to fight back. When these gasses are emitted, they often make their way into these communities.
Q: What do they cause?
A: These gasses affect the respiratory system and nervous system. Studies show that people who live near these facilities are extremely stressed by the odors. People cough and wheeze and often report that they can’t breathe properly.
Q: I understand that something called PED — porcine epidemic diarrhea virus — is also having a negative effect.
A: This virus is going through the swine herd in North Carolina and across the country. It is reportedly killing all piglets who contact it. It is also said to be killing some of the sows.
While that disease, according to everything I’ve read, is not transmittable to people, there is a potential problem as these dead hogs are being buried at the swine facilities. One estimate of animals killed in our state by PED is around 2,000,000. It could be quite higher, but the industry and state are withholding those figures from public disclosure.
What makes this very concerning is that many of these diseased hogs are being buried in the ground, some very close to public waters, like wetlands, creeks and rivers. The ground water in eastern North Carolina, especially this time of year, is extremely high. We have photographs of these animals being dumped into pits containing ground water. This is happening without sufficient oversight of any of our state agencies, including local county health directors.
Q: What can be done to prevent this?
A: The public needs to be educated. Most people love nature, but people are busy going on with their lives, raising their kids, working and feeding their families. The environment is usually a distant thought. So, one of the things we need to do is make sure people understand the consequences associated with environmental degradation. Pollution from swine and poultry factories is just a part of that.
Q: What else is causing water pollution?
A: We’re also dealing with huge coal ash discharges. Duke Energy has recently discharged tens of millions of gallons of toxic material into two North Carolina rivers, the Dan and Cape Fear. They have done this illegally.
We took aerial pictures of pumps on the banks of two of Duke’s huge coal ash ponds located on the Cape Fear River showing them pumping toxic waste into public waters — our rivers. This is toxic ash that’s left over from the burning of coal. This ash has been stored for decades in these huge ponds. Discharges have been taking place for years. Now, it is a deluge. This pond water and ash contains very toxic pollutants such as arsenic, boron and other very dangerous heavy metals.
It’s likely the Dan River, where Duke Energy has discharged its coal ash, will for many purposes become unusable for generations. According to reports, on the Cape Fear Duke Energy has illegally pumped 61 million gallons of this toxic pond water to the river.
There’s a federal Grand Jury investigation going on now concerning what Duke has done and what the state has failed to do to adequately enforce our environmental laws. North Carolina Waterkeepers and their environmental partners have led the environmental effort on this.
Q: What else are you going to talk about during your presentation?
A: I plan to remind everyone of what’s at stake. I will present in video and pictures what nature has to offer us here in North Carolina.
Then, I will discuss the threats to this important resource. Much of that will be shown in graphic form. There’s a third thing I want to talk about. I refer to it as North Carolina’s Dark Ages. Right now, we are probably at a time in our state’s history where the environment is being assaulted like never before. We have to educate the public about the consequences to public health and the economy that will result from this kind of industrial pollution. These practices, while gaining some profits in the short term, are not sustainable.
We need folks to understand that in these dark times there is an opportunity for us to make some real progress. I believe that the mistakes being made now are so grave that it will awaken the public to the importance of environmental protection. It will lead to environmental changes that hopefully will last for generations to come.
In other words, I think that things are so bad that the public will now see that they must act. It’s not doomsday, but the time to act is now. Otherwise, it may be too late.
Q: How is the economy impacted by environmental degradation?
A: What we have learned historically is that good environmental policies are good economic policies.
In other words, if you take care of the environment, the economy will thrive, especially over the long term. Pollution of the environment may bring short-term gains, but pollution-based profits are not sustainable. At a point in time the bill will come due. The longer we wait, the more we pollute, the bigger the bill.
As that old saying goes, “Pay me now or pay me later.” In North Carolina, later is now. The time for short-term profits at nature’s expense is over.
Q: Can you give us an example?
A: During the Pfiesteria outbreak (the organism that puts neurotoxins in the water that killed all those fish back in the ‘90s) the Neuse River at New Bern was closed down to fishing and general use. When news media reported on the impacts of Pfiesteria, it traveled throughout the country. Documentary crews from around the world were covering this vampire organism. People were reporting having sores similar to those on the fish and suffering from things like memory loss and respiratory problems.
After that, hotels emptied, houses on the river wouldn’t sell, the real estate and building industries crashed and the fish industry took a huge hit. People who intended to vacation in our state began cancelling reservations from the coast to the mountains. The local economy went into a nose dive. And all that was came from just one environmental consequence called Pfiesteria.
There is another thing that is holding back the economy in eastern North Carolina. It’s having the reputation of being an area full of putrid odors and animal waste pollution. People across the country know about these odors that animal factories generate. This reputation is stunting growth.
The reality is that once you have a polluting industry like these animal factories, clean industry hesitates to come. We’ve even had one good industry threaten to leave if the governor permitted any more chicken-processing plants to come to eastern North Carolina.
Like I said, the economy is directly affected by environmental policies. If you have bad environmental policies, you’re going to eventually have a bad economy. If you have good environmental policies, you’re going to have an economy that is healthy and sustainable over the long term.
Q: What do you want your audience to go away with after hearing your presentation?
A: I want them to go away with a couple of things. One is a really good understanding of the benefits that come from a healthy environment. I also want them to know about the environmental damage that is currently taking place in North Carolina. I want them to understand what is being done to the environment and how it impacts them economically and in their health.
The Center for the Environment at Catawba College was founded in 1996 to provide education and outreach centered on prevalent environmental challenges and to foster community-oriented sustainable solutions that can serve as a model for programs throughout the country. For more information, visit www.CenterForTheEnvironment.org or www.CampaignForClean Air.org.