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Remember when pig manure was all the rage? Specifically, how the elimination of hundreds of lagoons filled with millions of gallons of hog excrement from our flood-prone coastal plain was a huge priority?

A whiff of nostalgia about hog lagoons 

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Remember when pig manure was all the rage? Specifically, how the elimination of hundreds of lagoons filled with millions of gallons of hog excrement from our flood-prone coastal plain was a huge priority? Remember when politicians measured their virility by how tough they were going to be on polluters, tossing around words like "befoul" and airing commercials with dramatic music and promises to clean up the mess?

And what a mess it was (is). For newcomers and those of you who need to be reminded, media attention and two major events led this state to believe that parking hog waste in earthen lagoons might not be a good idea. First, The News & Observer published a Pulizer Prize-winning series in early 1995 about the politics and environmental dangers of corporate hog farming. Then, that June, an 8-acre lagoon of hog manure collapsed at Oceanview Farms in Onslow County, sending 25 million gallons of manure muck into a tributary of the New River, creating a 17-mile dead zone in the river. That event triggered a successful legislative effort in 1997 to declare a moratorium on new hog farms and make it state policy to phase out the lagoons.

The second major event was Hurricane Floyd, which in 1999 brought massive flooding to the factory farm regions centered in Duplin and Onslow counties. Hundred of lagoons seeped, spilled and oozed an incalculable amount of hog manure into the rivers and streams creating--among other things--a 350-square-mile dead zone in the Pamlico and Albermarle estuaries. That helped push the state in 2000 to cut a deal with the pork industry to eliminate lagoons as soon as some other cost-effective way of dealing with the waste was found.

Six years later, we got nothing. Yes, enforcement and inspections are more effective and the industry is getting better at building lagoons, but the essential problem--hundreds of open-air lagoons in a hurricane-prone floodplain--is very much still with us.

In March, N.C. State University researcher Mike Williams, the man the state hired to study new disposal methods, reported that after five years working on the problem, none of the five systems that meet environmental requirements was "economically feasible." The conclusion gave the industry all it needed to back out of the agreement.

Some people aren't giving up. Rep. Carolyn Justice, a Pender County Republican, is trying to get the House to act on legislation she filed to set up a pilot program for farms that want to try out new methods. She's got the backing of Environmental Defense and Frontline Farmers, a group of smaller pork producers and contact farmers. But the pork industry, which hands out a ton of money during election season, is trying to stop Justice's efforts.

Dan Whittle, counsel for Environmental Defense, says Justice's bill is important because the state has to have some mechanism for funding alternatives and to help farmers who want to be early adopters. New technologies won't be economically feasible, he says, until there's a market for them.

There's also likely to be money available from other sources like the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund and federal agriculture programs, but North Carolina has yet to set up a program to receive the funds and channel them to farmers willing to try new systems.

For now, though, it looks a case of Justice delayed, Justice denied--and Boss Hog has managed to come out of this on top. With no crisis driving headlines, politicians are reluctant to take up the fight and take on the industry.

And in a much more consolidated market that is experiencing a pork glut, the moratorium--the stick--has turned out to be no problem for the industry. In May, N.C. Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler told National Hog Farmer magazine that the state has probably maxed out in the number of hog farms. Last Thursday, Smithfield Foods, which has bought out most major suppliers in North Carolina, announce its profit had plunged 99 percent from the year before--much of the drop due to a glut of meat in the market.

Consequently, the industry is standing behind a bill by Rep. Russell Tucker, a Duplin County Democrat, to extend the moratorium until 2012 and spend a whopping $5,000 to study alternative energy uses for the waste.

If Tucker's bill passes, it'll be on another feel-good vote to extend the moratorium. Legislators will be able to tell their constituents that they're against more hog farms (even though no one's asking) and the flow of campaign cash from Smithfield and the Pork Council will continue unabated, just like that stuff flowing down the sluice into the lagoons.

Contact Kirk Ross at kross@indyweek.com.

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