For Elsie Herring, time spent outdoors is strictly determined by the industrial hog farm hidden just behind the trees that line her property. When the farm disperses hog waste across nearby fields, Herring has learned to avoid opening her window, sitting on her porch with friends, or drinking water from her well. Herring, a Black woman lives in Duplin County, North Carolina, on a plot of land that has been in her family for over a century. The county, like many in the state, is home to more than just the Herrings and their neighbors. More than 2.3 million hogs call Duplin County home, outnumbering people almost forty to one.
Like many others across the state, Herring recognizes how little control she has over protecting her standard of living: “They’ve polluted our water, disrupted our quality of life. So why are we being subjected to being forced to live with animals and their waste? So the pork industry can make a profit.”
Unsurprisingly, the hog industry is an economic boon to the state. But, at what cost does North Carolina reap these benefits? Despite the immense economic prosperity these hog operations bring to some, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have brought devastation and life-threatening consequences to others. Equally unsurprising is that CAFOs have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color in the state. As a result, their prevalence is an environmental justice issue and should be treated as such by providing reparations and support for those suffering from the impacts of the industry.
Herring is one of many North Carolinians whose well-being exists at the constant mercy of the hog industry. Swine CAFOs dominate much of the North Carolina landscape. The state is second in the nation in terms of pork production, and the industry accounts for an estimated $11 billion in business and is responsible for over 46,000 jobs. The majority of these hogs belong to the largest pork producer in the world: Murphy-Brown LLC, the hog production arm of the corporate giant Smithfield Foods. The problems CAFOs presents are massive. CAFOs can house anywhere from hundreds to millions of animals. Such a heavy concentration of hogs translates into equally massive volumes of waste. In fact, Duplin County’s hogs alone generate 15,700 tons of waste a day—around twice as much as the waste produced by the entire population of New York City. To manage this, feces is stored in “manure lagoons,” open air pits the size of football fields or larger. This waste is usually not treated to kill off disease-causing microbes or to remove chemicals, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, or other pollutants. To empty these lagoons, the stored waste is sprayed onto crop fields like the one next to Herring’s home.
The sensory impact of CAFOs—the overwhelming odor resulting from spraying animal feces across fields on an excruciatingly hot summer day—are undoubtedly unpleasant, but the health effects associated with them are far more nauseating. Living near CAFOs exposes residents to many toxic gases and hazardous chemicals including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane. Hydrogen sulfide poisoning can cause chronic headaches, nausea, burning eyes, and irreversible brain damage. Elevated levels of nitrates in drinking water can cause “blue baby syndrome,” a potentially fatal blood disorder. For Herring and many others, these risks aren’t abstractions. They’re a brutal reality.
Living near a CAFO causes harm that can follow residents for the rest of their lives. A 2018 study of communities in the southeastern corner of North Carolina, led by Duke University’s Julia Kravchenko, concluded that communities located near swine CAFOs had higher infant mortality rates due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia. Even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors known to affect health, life expectancy in these communities remains lower than the state and national averages. On top of physical symptoms, Herring emphasizes the anxiety and depression her community faces. CAFOs dramatically reduce the opportunity for the people who neighbor them—totaling nearly 960,000 in North Carolina—to pursue healthy and happy lives.
Not all North Carolinians carry the burden of CAFOs equally. CAFOs are largely concentrated in the eastern half of the state, in an area known as “the Black Belt,” where a majority of the state’s African-American population resides. In the post-slavery decades, the ancestors of slaves remained quarantined in this region through sharecropping and tenant farming practices, preventing wealth accumulation. Even those who desired to move west were often barred from doing so as a result of racially restrictive covenants and redlining.
The placement of CAFOs is anything but coincidental. The majority of these operations have been established in places considered to be “paths of least resistance.” Affected communities are typically poor, lacking the financial resources, education, and legal connections necessary to combat industry action. Minorities and low-income folks are disproportionately burdened with the environmental, socioeconomic, and health effects of swine waste, while being stripped of the opportunity to reap associated economic benefits.
Time has brought little change: A 2014 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that, compared to white people, Black people are 54 percent more likely to reside near these hog operations, Hispanics are 39 percent more likely, and Native Americans are more than twice as likely. These residents continue to experience disproportionately high rates of poverty, unemployment, substandard housing, and low education completion.
Despite the incredible power the pork industry wields in the Tar Heel State, the public’s efforts to limit its pull are finally beginning to materialize. After decades of the state government siding with CAFOs and minimizing their regulation, a series of lawsuits over the past few years have been lost by the corporate giant Smithfield Foods Inc. over the odor and noise created by hog farming. In June, Herring’s own Duplin County was involved in one of these suits and was awarded $25 million, although this amount was later reduced to $630,000 because of a state cap. Furthermore, this October, Smithfield Foods was backed into actions that for years they had claimed to be economically infeasible. The company pledged to cover the lagoons with plastic in order to contain the smell and capture the methane produced.
While these concessions demonstrate progress, Duke University’s Ryke Longest, an advocate in the effort to rein in hog farming, is not so quick to celebrate the significance of this announcement. To Longest, the effects of such a proposition cannot be understood until the technicalities of this plan are revealed.
Sacoby Wilson, a University of Maryland environmental health professor, highlights the importance of communicating with, educating, and involving those who are directly affected by this environmental justice issue. His scientific initiatives have mobilized North Carolina’s communities to get involved in data collection, which he notes has significantly empowered citizens. “When we train residents to do sampling, they understand the science of the process,” says Wilson. “They can go to the town council, they can go to the media, they can explain it. That’s powerful. It helps build up a community’s ability to be more involved in decision making.”
Despite these recent strides, there is no reversing the devastation which has already been inflicted upon Herring and the thousands of North Carolinians in her position. Though improving conditions for future generations is undoubtedly imperative, the citizens who have been harmed deserve significant reparations for their years of suffering; the recent cases against Smithfield Foods are just the beginning. While instances of overt racism dominate American headlines, it is critical that the United States look deeper. More subtle instances of racism and injustice, manifested in inequities like North Carolina’s CAFOs, also demand our attention—and immediate action.
Photo: “Hog confinement barn“