Agricultural water contamination

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 17, 2023

By Larry Baldwin

In the 1980s, farming in North Carolina changed as we knew it. Traditional family farms gave way to behemoth industrial facilities where animals were crammed into confined indoor spaces by the thousands. Over time, hogs became the commodity of choice in the eastern half of the state, and their population spread like a plague.

Then as now, the animals’ feces and urine would either be smeared against themselves and their unfortunate roommates or fall down between slats that led to a catchment basin down below.

Eventually, the indoor accumulation of the waste becomes too much, and has to be hosed out to an enormous basin that the industry likes to call a “lagoon.” 

We prefer the term “cesspool.” 

This vile concoction of pig waste, pathogens and bacteria is pumped into a pit where — in theory — the naturally occurring process of “anaerobic digestion” breaks the waste down into something less harmful to people and the environment. Think of it as ordinary decay but within a liquid. 

Except, that’s not what’s really taking place. “Hog wash” more accurately describes the process.

You see, once that hog waste and all of its nasties get pumped into the cesspool, the solids start to settle out. What’s left on top is a witches brew of algal bloom fueling nutrient excesses, sickening pathogens, revolting gasses and dangerous fecal bacteria.

These ill-maintained cesspools, decades past their prime, are but a temporary layover for this potion of pig poop, and the final destination is your water. 

To make matters worse, dairy/cattle CAFOs are a growing problem in the state, and these facilities use a similar method of waste disposal. 

Leaking or unlined lagoons combined with high water tables and sandy soils allow these animals’ waste to seep into the groundwater. Inadequate storage capacity and intensifying precipitation events prompt cesspool wall breaches, overflows and emergency discharges into adjacent waterways. Liquid — skimmed off the top of these pits — is literally sprayed onto fields under the guise of fertilizer, making the lives of nearby residents absolutely miserable.

Not only are these pits of decaying waste themselves in decay, they’re also filling up. Sludge is accumulating more quickly than it can be removed, and the amount of space left for the liquid waste and anaerobic digestion process is becoming less and less. 

In fact, the proposed draft general permits from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) would magnify this risk by allowing operators to let their lagoon waste pits’ solid sludge build up too high a volume. That means less room to contain liquid waste and less room for waste treatment. 

It also means you can anticipate more harmful spraying of liquified animal waste onto adjacent fields, and more community residents saddled with wretched fumes, pestilent flies and polluted water.

These facility operators routinely already apply far more waste than the token crops on these fields could ever hope to uptake as fertilizer. Over the past two decades, Waterkeeper Alliance and our member groups have taken hundreds of flights to document this, and now we’re seeking to strengthen these draft general permits. 

The permits would allow facility operators to continue spraying large volumes of waste onto nearby fields — virtually guaranteeing decades of legacy nutrient pollution. What doesn’t run off immediately into nearby waterways will leach out over time, fueling algal blooms and fish kills for generations to come.

The fact is, just one of these highly concentrated animal agriculture facilities (also known as CAFOs or concentrated animal feeding operations) can produce as much fecal waste as a city. 

But unlike people poop, which requires extensive processing by sophisticated wastewater treatment plants, CAFO waste requires no comparable treatment before it can be discharged onto the field, running off into the stream beside your house. 

What’s more, the state is repeating the mistakes it made with the hog industry and is letting the rapidly expanding poultry industry grow like wildfire devoid of any meaningful checks or transparency. CAFOs typically are organized in a densely concentrated fashion that deliberately targets socially and politically disenfranchised communities.

It really is as bad as it seems. But hope is a blessedly difficult thing to crush. We are not powerless. We are not without voices. 

By Nov. 3, let your first step be writing to NCDEQ in opposition to these draft general permits and to the CAFO model of agriculture as a whole. Tell the state regulatory agency — and even your state elected officials — how you feel about the abusive nature of this industry. Despite what they say, animal factory farming is not a “win” for North Carolina’s economy.

Whether or not you have one of these facilities as your neighbor, sooner or later some river, lake or estuary that you love might be the next victim to this wretched and exploitative industrial system of agriculture. Please act now.

Larry Baldwin is the Pure Farms, Pure Waters campaign coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance in North Carolina. He formerly served as a Crystal Coast Waterkeeper and Lower Neuse Riverkeeper and has led the Alliance’s work with local Riverkeeper programs to end the stranglehold the CAFO industry has on North Carolina’s communities and environment. Learn more about joining one or more of your North Carolina-based Waterkeeper Alliance member groups here.