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Hurricanes feed environmental fears about hog lagoons

Posted July 31, 2008
Updated August 1, 2008

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— The destruction wrought on hog lagoons by Hurricane Floyd in 1999 prompted North Carolina's governor to vow to eliminate them.

However, ten years later, more than 3,800 hog lagoons still operate and are, increasingly, the target of environmental activists.

Floyd killed hundreds of swine and caused hog lagoons to overflow, contaminating nearby water supplies. In response, the state bought out 40 hog farms in flood plains and toughened regulations and upped inspections for existing lagoons.

"In general, the farms are much better run than they were 10, 15, 20 years ago," said Keith Larick, the interim supervisor for the North Carolina Division of Water Quality's Aquifer Protection Section.

Environmentalists, though, argue that instead of tightening regulations, the state should have completed then-Gov. Jim Hunt's program to phase out all hog lagoons within 10 years of Floyd.

"They are environmental nightmares, and they need to be addressed," said Dean Naujoks, with the Neuse River Keepers Foundation. "It's just a very sad day that we're moving in the opposite direction.

Under traditional hog farming methods, hogs waste is flushed into lagoons where solids settles. Bacteria breaks down the solids, and liquid waste is sprayed onto grass fields as fertilizer.

"We are at great risk of these hog lagoons overflowing, rupturing," and then threatening nearby streams and rivers," said Naujoks, whose group regularly looks for hog-farm violations.

Proponents of hog lagoons, though, insist that appropriate control of hog farms can make them safe.

"Lagoon systems work very well when they are managed properly, and the majority of them are," said Curtis Barwick, who oversees hog lagoons for Coharie Farms in Sampson County.

"The farmers out here are much more in tune to those lagoons in checking them and marking sure they get those lagoons down," Barwick continued.

State legislation has permanently prohibited the expansion of large-scale hog operations and encourages hog farmers to transition from lagoons to new environmentally-desirable technology.

While some farms have started moving away from lagoons, state officials said the process is expensive and not required..

"At this point, it's just not economically feasible to require farms to convert from the lagoon systems," Larick said.

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