The Pig Poop Problem Is Getting Out of Hand

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The state of North Carolina is home to one of the largest hog industries in the country. With 2,200 hog farms across the state—second most only to Iowa— the 10 million pigs rivals the number of people. The hog industry has proven to be incredibly lucrative for the state, but ever since the rise of industrial farming, managing the enormous amount of waste that these animals produce has proven to be extremely challenging.

Traditionally, farmers have chosen to deal with waste by storing it in large, open-air lagoons and then using it as fertilizer for their crops. This method introduces a host of ramifications for water and air quality. The manure often pollutes groundwater, and the heavy amounts phosphorus and nitrogen cause algal blooms that can eviscerate fish populations in nearby lakes and rivers. These open lagoons also freely emit ammonia, nitrogen, and methane gas into the atmosphere

A common waste disposal method among farmers is liquefying the feces and releasing it through a sprinkler system, generating a fine mist. However, when this mist carries into local communities, residents are put at risk. A Duke study linked exposure to waste particles with a litany of maladies: increased risk of asthma, diarrhea, and eye infections, as well as increased blood pressure, and impaired pulmonary function. The noxious smell also significantly impacts the quality of life for residents, with many reluctant to leave their homes because of it.

Opponents of reform refute these public health and environmental risks, claiming that the hog industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the state. However, what they fail to mention is that the lack of resources invested in monitoring and enforcement means that many farms can cut corners or ignore rules altogether.

To address this issue, I suggest a two-pronged attack. The first involves more monitoring and enforcement. Instead of annual inspections that are often no more than courtesy calls, I would suggest increasing the frequency and rigor of these inspections. At the same time, imposing harsher penalties for bad behavior while incentivizing consistently good results would make farmers more likely to toe the line.

But simply ensuring that these farms are following current regulations isn’t enough; the lagoon and spray system is outdated, and North Carolina needs new policy that promotes a better alternative. While there are a number of different waste management options, anaerobic digesters are the gold standard. Simply put, these digesters use microorganisms to convert manure into biogas; the only downside is that installing and maintaining them is quite expensive.

To fight these high costs, I propose that the state government work alongside large hog corporations like Smithfield and energy providers such as Duke Energy to fund anaerobic digesters across the state. Through the use of Private Activity Bonds (PABs), the state can attract private investment for the purpose of financing projects that have wide public benefits. These bonds are attractive to corporations because of their long-term financial security; and, on top of the many existing grant opportunities, these investments will help alleviate costs for farmers.

There are already incentives for hog corporations and utilities to invest in digesters. For pork producers, waste management has always been a black eye, and they’ve devoted piles of money on legal defenses, lobbying, and PR. In fact, Smithfield has recognized digesters as a viable option and invested millions alongside Roeslein Alternative Energy to implement them on some of their farms. The waste represents another potential revenue stream for hog farmers and pork corporations, meaning investments could help pay for themselves down the line.

For utilities, biogas represents a way to fulfill their renewable energy requirements and earn credits through carbon offset programs. Under North Carolina’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, the state mandates that 12.5% of 2020 electric power come from renewables, and pig manure represents a cheap, plentiful source of renewable energy that utilities can tap into.

With roughly 4000 waste lagoons in North Carolina alone, implementing digesters on a large scale will be expensive and time-consuming. However, between the many state and federal grant programs to help farmers, and the numerous incentives for larger corporations to invest in PABs, widespread adoption is feasible. Going forward, the use of digesters will help alleviate the stress of irresponsible waste management practices on at-risk communities and promote a safe and renewable source of clean energy.

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