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What's cheaper than a s**thole? 

A hog farm and waste lagoon as seen from the air, showing their proximity to the Neuse River ecosystem.

Photo by Rex Miller

A hog farm and waste lagoon as seen from the air, showing their proximity to the Neuse River ecosystem.

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When 10 million hogs poop—and they poop a lot (four times the human rate)—where does it go? In North Carolina, it goes into open cesspools, or "lagoons," which are clay-lined pits. No synthetic liners required. The "solids" sink to the bottom, the residual liquid is sprayed onto agriculture fields as fertilizer. This disposal method has the single virtue of being cheap. Its downsides are many, however: Most of the nitrogen goes into the air as ammonia, which can really stink; the ammonia pollutes nearby watersheds when it comes back to earth; and when the cesspools leak, as they do, groundwater supplies are contaminated.

But weren't we supposed to be done with "lagoons" by now? Yes, we were. After Hurricane Floyd flooded Eastern North Carolina in 1999, washing hog poop into every river and stream, then-Attorney General Mike Easley made a deal with the industry and, specifically, its biggest player. Under the eponymous "Smithfield Agreement," Smithfield Foods would pay for research into alternative, more environmentally friendly disposal methods with the goal of replacing the lagoons at all 276 of its company-owned hog-growing operations in North Carolina within five years.

The first two years were for research, to be led by Dr. Mike Williams at the NCSU College of Agriculture. Then, three years for implementation. By the end of 2005, no more lagoons—so Easley said. Only a few naysayers called the deal a way of letting Smithfield off the hook.

Seven years later, though, the research continues, and implementation is still years away at best. What's the holdup? Money, what else? The Smithfield Agreement requires the company to shift to alternative methods only if they are better environmentally and are "economically feasible." Williams' research has thus far identified five better methods for the environment, with four more "on the bubble." But none of the nine has met the economic standard, which is that the additional cost of using it cannot be equal to—according to a complex calculation that Williams makes—a 12 percent reduction in the state's hog population.

Even the 12 percent standard was fought by the industry, which wanted no additional cost at all. (But how could any disposal method be as cheap as a hole in the ground?) Dan Whittle, senior attorney at Environmental Defense, a nonprofit leader on this issue, says the costs of the leading alternatives "aren't insubstantial; however, we think the industry is profitable enough to absorb them" without cutting its hog herds at all.

Williams says he remains optimistic that one or more of the leading alternatives will meet the economic standard soon. Legislation proposed by state Rep. Carolyn Justice, R-Pender, would help, especially since Smithfield's $17 million payment is spent. Her bill would give $20 million, on a 90-10 cost-sharing basis, to the first 50 or so farms willing to be "early adopters" of the new methods. Some of the most promising ones involve generating methane gas for sale or otherwise making useful byproducts for sale. If they're installed on farms, Whittle believes, the result should be economies of scale and new market development, cutting their marginal costs below the 12 percent standard. At that point, Smithfield would have three years to convert its lagoons. Unless, that is, it fights Williams' calculations in court.

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