Column: Debate on hog-farm moratorium will get messier

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 9, 2007

By Scott Mooneyham

Capitol Press Association

RALEIGH — When it comes to North Carolina’s moratorium on industrial-style hog farms, this year could bear a striking resemblance to “Alice in Wonderland.”

Down is up. Up is down. Hog farmers want it. Environmentalist doan’t.

The General Assembly first approved the moratorium, which applies to new farms with more than 250 hogs, in 1997. The moratorium came in response to a series of hog waste spills, including a massive one in the New River in Onslow County, as industrial-style hog farming took off in the state.

Environmental groups partied in the streets. The powerful hog barons shook their fists toward Raleigh.

Then, a funny thing happened. The hog farmers and their integrator bosses suddenly realized that this moratorium thing wasn’t so bad after all.

If you were already in the business, a ban on new farms meant no new competition.

Since the initial ban, the moratorium has been extended three times, the last in 2003 for four additional years. The 2003 extension produced all the drama of a repeat of “Leave It to Beaver.”

After all, the industry and environmentalists were on the same side of the issue.

Don’t look for a repeat in 2007.

With the moratorium scheduled to end later this year, many of the state’s environmental lobbying groups seem bent on allowing the moratorium to drop. In its place, they want a permanent ban on any new open-air hog lagoons and a requirement that any new farms use cleaner technology to treat hog waste.

Dan Whittle, a lawyer with the North Carolina offices of Environmental Defense, says he also expects a push to establish a deadline for the conversion of existing hog lagoons to cleaner alternatives.

Then-Attorney General Mike Easley did call for “a strict timetable” to eliminate lagoons seven years ago when he negotiated a deal with Smithfield Foods and Premium Standard Farms to begin studying alternatives.

Obviously, the big pork processors, citing study findings that alternatives could cost as much as five times more than the current lagoon-spray field systems, aren’t likely to willingly go along with such a timetable.

A more interesting issue to watch will be the fight over a moratorium extension verses a requirement for any new hog farms to use new technology.

While replacing existing lagoons may be cost prohibitive, the environmental crowd argues that using newer technology rather than digging new lagoons is not.

As for imposing a deadline for phase-out of lagoons, that talk may be a negotiating position meant to get legislators to seriously consider a proposal to provide grant money for farmers who want to voluntarily switch to alternative waste treatment.

A bill to provide $10 million for such conversions went nowhere last year, even though a number of farmers backed the proposal.

The long-term answers won’t all come in 2007, but the year may well mark a start rather than a continuation of the decade-long pause that has been the moratorium.

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Scott Mooneyham is a columnist for Capitol Press Association.