Past the rusted remains of a gas station, past the granite headstones in the Stancil Cemetery, past the freshly tilled cotton fields near Saratoga in Wilson County, former hog farmer Don Webb drives his battered Ford pickup truck to a ditch and stops.
"I've seen that ditch turn purple from shit," says Webb. "More E. coli than you could count."
A few yards from the ditch are several trailers that look like small ovens baking in the open pasture. About a mile from the ditch lies one of Smithfield's 800 North Carolina hog farms, many of them concentrated in the eastern counties.
Webb, 66, is a repentant polluter and a Smithfield foe. He started with 12 hogs, grew his headcount to 4,000, became a contract farmer with Smithfield, then sold out and quit the hog business 30 years ago. "Back in the '70s, there was no environmental regulation. We polluted like hell."
But the state's hog farm pollution didn't end after the '70s, nor did it stop because of environmental laws. In the 1990s, the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources fined Virginia-based Smithfield $60,000 for environmental violations, including high levels of fecal coliform and chlorides in its discharge; in 2002, DENR fined the company more than $10,000 for purchasing hogs from banned farms.
Yet, just as Smithfield has begun to clean up its act, the company is asking DENR to remove essential environmental protections from the Tar Heel plant's wastewater discharge permit, which is up for renewal. At the world's largest hog slaughterhouse, Smithfield wants DENR to lift limits on groundwater withdrawal, rescind requirements for environmental management systems—internal controls that monitor environmental performance—and revoke the ban on buying hogs from farms built after Dec. 1, 2002, that still use waste lagoons.
Meanwhile, Smithfield wants to increase the number of hogs slaughtered annually at its Tar Heel plant from 8.4 million to 9.5 million. Grown in North Carolina, the additional hogs were previously slaughtered at a Virginia plant that's closing.
"How can you possibly increase production with this environmental record?" Webb asked DENR officials at a March 15 public hearing held in Bladen County, a few miles from the plant.
Although DENR left the protections in the draft version, Smithfield's request alarmed environmentalists, who are skeptical of the company's ability to self-regulate.
"Their performance has been improving," acknowledges Amy Pickle, staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "But given their history, we're very adamant the regulations need to be maintained. Their compliance is a result of the restrictions."
Dennis Treacy, Smithfield's vice president of environmental and corporate affairs, says the company doesn't think several requirements are necessary. The plant has implemented a water conservation plan and has reduced its average groundwater withdrawals; the environmental management systems, he says, "are entrenched throughout the company."
"It was pretty innocent on our part," adds Treacy, who was head of Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality from 1998-2001. "But there are some folks who believe we need to be watched."
Environmentalists want to keep an eye on Smithfield because of the company's conduct when no one was watching. For 10 years, Smithfield broke state law by failing to record its groundwater withdrawal, which amounted to millions of gallons a day. When DENR discovered the violation, it assessed Smithfield just $500 in late fees, the maximum allowed by law.
Currently, Smithfield can withdraw just under 2 million gallons a day from the Black Creek and Cape Fear aquifers. However, this figure is a monthly average; day-to-day, the company can, and does, withdraw more. On July 18, 2006, according to DENR records, the withdrawal was 3.8 million gallons. In September and October 2006, the company exceeded the cap on six days.
The limit is important because a "cone of depression"—a sinkhole—formed beneath the plant from Smithfield's excessive pumping. Since the cap has been in place and Smithfield has used more recycled water, water levels in the aquifer have risen 5 feet. The sinkhole "looks fairly stable," says Nat Wilson, a hydrogeologist with the N.C. Department of Water Resources.
Draining the aquifer can reduce water levels in nearby private drinking wells.
"They realize we're very serious about the groundwater situation," Wilson says. "We've been pushing for Smithfield to come up with an alternate water source."
That source is slated to be the Lower Cape Fear River, where a surface-water treatment and intake plant could be built in 2009.
In addition to its water withdrawal, Smithfield's discharge also bears monitoring. It is allowed to discharge up to 3 million gallons of treated wastewater a day into the Cape Fear River—again on a monthly average. But DENR records show that from August 2006 through January 2007, there were 14 days that exceeded the threshold, all weekends or holidays. Consistently, the highest rates of discharge have been on weekends, a time when, coincidentally, Smithfield isn't required to monitor levels of some pollutants, including fecal coliform.
There are fears that increased hog kills—and increased waste—will harm the state's waterways even if Smithfield complies with environmental laws. If the provisions are lifted, the damage could be worse. "I strongly oppose Smithfield's permit requests," Larry Baldwin, Lower Neuse riverkeeper, told DENR officials at the hearing. "If they have such a stellar environmental record, why remove the environmental management systems? It's a slap in the face of the residents of North Carolina."
Many environmentalists point to Smithfield's dreadful record in Virginia as a foreshadowing of the environmental damage that could occur in North Carolina if DENR goes soft on the company. In 1997, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the company $12.5 million for dumping hog waste into the Pagan River after Virginia environmental officials allowed the company to exceed its permit limits.
(Treacy was head of DEQ when EPA levied the penalty, although the case started several years before he began working there. Nor, he says, was he responsible for a 1991 cleanup deal between the state and Smithfield that relaxed discharge limits. He worked in the state attorney general's office of the environment at the time. "It wasn't my case," he says, adding as DEQ chief he sued Smithfield, which hired him in 2002. "They hired me because they wanted to move in a new direction.")
"It's important to point out that when the company first came here [in 1991], Virginia had been strengthening its discharge limits," says Michelle Nowlin, senior attorney for Southern Environmental Law Center. "The company didn't want to comply and threatened in public hearings if the limits increased, they would look elsewhere. And Smithfield came here."
And with Smithfield's arrival, the state hog industry expanded, bringing with it more stench and additional lagoons and sprayfields. The acrid odor often forces residents indoors, and even then can waft in through air-conditioners and gaps in windows and doors. "It's wrong," Webb says. "A good American would never stink up another American's yard. People are at the mercy of the wind."
Next to several Wilson County mobile homes, irrigation reels spray liquid manure to fertilize the ground. And when the seasonal rains arrive, drainage ditches carry the contaminated runoff along a county road and a row of homes, where it then trickles into a tributary that drains into Contentnea Creek, which runs through Webb's property and feeds many of the lakes and wetlands he's built.
Webb points at a line of turtles sunbathing on a log.
"Why would anyone want to destroy this?" he asks, rhetorically. "I love it here."