In North Carolina, history, industry, and climate change work in tandem to create landscapes of toxic waste.
In Houston, it was the petrochemical plants. In North Carolina, it was the hog farms. In both places, churning floodwaters caused by recent storms were turned into a toxic stew that endangered local water resources and public health. In September 2018, Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina, where seven million gallons of hog waste overtopped the region’s ubiquitous open-air lagoons and quickly made its way into neighbors’ yards and nearby streams.
As by-products go, the fecal sludge of an industrial-scale hog farm is far from benign. The waste can carry viruses, parasites, nitrates, and bacteria such as salmonella. Even in the best circumstances, the odors from these open-air lagoons, which number some 3,300 across the state but are concentrated in the heavily African American counties of eastern North Carolina, are noxious enough that in August 2018 a jury awarded six families $473.5 million for having to live near a hog farm in Pender County. Combined with a severe storm, however, these lagoons become all the more dangerous, threatening the water supply of entire communities and far-flung ecosystems.
Hurricane Florence was just the most recent example of how severe weather events, strengthened by a warming climate, can interact with industrialized landscapes to create new threats to public health and safety. If landscape architects are to grapple with the environmental and human health impacts of climate change, they will have to educate themselves about agricultural waste.
Designers are beginning to consider the issue, says Kofi Boone, ASLA, an associate professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. As a part of NC State’s 2018 Design Week, organized by the school’s Department of Landscape Architecture, one interdisciplinary team investigated the hog waste problem and proposed that farmers use black soldier fly larvae to consume and thereby reduce the overall mass of biowaste. (In countries where the strategy is used, such as China and Indonesia, the fly larvae are fed to chickens or other livestock in a mostly closed-loop system.)
The challenge in North Carolina, which produces 12 percent of America’s pork, is that producers such as Smithfield have little incentive to buck the status quo; open-air lagoons are cheaper than other options and, at the moment at least, legal to operate. (Although new lagoons were banned by the state legislature in 2007, existing lagoons were exempted from the law.) This means designers will need to get extra creative, says Connie Migliazzo, ASLA, the principal and owner of Prato, a landscape architecture and design practice in Portland, Oregon, and one of few designers who has researched the issue of hog waste. “It’s up to us to figure out the design strategies that will help in situations like this, but also how to create funding streams.”
In 2012, while a student at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Migliazzo received a grant through the Penny White Project Fund to research hog farms in the Netherlands, which, despite a land area of just 13,086 square miles, is one of the top 10 pork producers in the world. Migliazzo had read about the health concerns associated with North Carolina’s industrial-scale hog facilities, which are also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. She also understood that they had far-reaching consequences for the environment: Farmers often spray liquefied waste onto fields, which in the sandy soils of eastern North Carolina can seep into groundwater or flow into streams and contribute to fish-killing algal blooms.
Migliazzo spent a month touring the Dutch countryside, meeting with hog farmers and studying their waste management systems. Some methods, like the use of slatted floors to remove waste from the farrowing, or birthing, barn, were similar to those used in the United States. But Migliazzo noted one glaring absence: There were no open-air lagoons anywhere. Instead, many Dutch farmers employed large, round, aboveground tanks covered with white, conical, fabric tops. Open-air lagoons were illegal in the Netherlands, Migliazzo was told. How waste was stored and disposed of was highly regulated, and farmers tended to comply.
“For me, the biggest and most depressing result of this research was that we’re just culturally different,” Migliazzo says. She acknowledges that there likely are farmers who skirt the rules, or who seek to maximize profit at the expense of their neighbors or the Netherlands’ natural resources. She also notes that the size of the Netherlands makes close monitoring by regulatory officials more feasible. Still, she says, the Dutch farmers whom she spoke to seemed to understand that if they pollute their waterways, everyone loses. “And that, to me, was just so simple but really mind-blowing.”
There have been efforts over the years to mitigate the dangers that hog waste poses to North Carolina. The biggest push came in the late 1990s, in response to Hurricane Floyd. Then, as with Florence (and with Matthew before it), overtopped lagoons spurred a public outcry. Smithfield Foods, then the state’s largest pork producer, bowed to pressure from the state legislature and agreed to work with NC State researchers to develop alternative management strategies. The agreement, however, was full of loopholes and caveats. After nearly 20 years, many of the company’s bright pink, sludge-filled lagoons remain in use.
Globalization hasn’t helped matters. In 2013, Smithfield was purchased by WH Group, a Chinese pork company. Boone says this creates a situation in which the corporation that owns the hog farms has potentially less investment in the local environment. As the headline of a March 2018 article in Rolling Stone put it, “Why Is China Treating North Carolina Like the Developing World?”
The landscape of eastern North Carolina is also shaped by its racial history. Ninety-five percent of the state’s large-scale hog farms are located in low-income communities of color, according to research by the Rachel Carson Council. Many of the counties with high concentrations of CAFOs are the same ones once dominated by cotton plantations and, later, tobacco. When tobacco became untenable in the 1980s and 1990s, landfill and prison operators rushed in, sensing opportunity. So did pork producers. Between 1987 and 1997, the number of hogs in North Carolina nearly quadrupled, rising to 9.6 million from 2.5 million.
The marginalization of local residents limited their ability to resist hog farms and landfills coming to their communities. In 1987, after toxic chemicals were found in the drinking water of Shocca, North Carolina, the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice published the landmark report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, one of the first studies to correlate race with exposure to environmental degradation from toxic waste. “Stronger than income, stronger than education, stronger than whether you’re urban or rural, the number one predictor of your proximity to toxic waste at that time was race,” Boone says.
Thirty years later, people of color continue to bear the brunt of the industrial landscape’s toxic by-products. A recent study linked southeast North Carolina’s higher-than-average rates of infant mortality, kidney disease, and tuberculosis to its concentration of CAFOs. In response to the recent flooding, the federal government and the state of North Carolina have initiated a series of voluntary buyouts, both for residents and hog farmers located in the 100-year floodplain. And yet despite the dangers, many families are reluctant to leave, Boone says. “People know they’re in harm’s way, people know the history, but because they have generations and generations of attachment to that particular place, they are hesitant to make that radical of a move.”
It’s the same fundamental tension that faces coastal communities, and Boone sees potential for applying adaptation strategies to the agricultural landscape, not just the country’s coastlines. In many ways, landscape architecture’s signature contribution to the built environment over the past 30 years has been to advocate the use of living systems to manage what traditionally has been handled by hard engineering, such as seawalls and concrete canals, which didn’t so much solve the issue at hand as shunt it onto far-flung communities. Boone says he thinks there are similar opportunities with hog farms.
On a practical level, such interventions might look like vegetated buffers between farms and streams, to absorb and filter the polluted wastewater before it enters the region’s waterways. More immediately, he says, landscape architects can play a pivotal role in reducing the risks faced by North Carolina’s rural communities by helping visualize the problem.
Migliazzo says she thinks the first problem to address is the knowledge gap that exists within the profession when it comes to agriculture. “Because people don’t understand a lot about agriculture, they don’t understand how design can be helpful,” she says. Migliazzo is interested in the role landscape architects can play in developing or helping farmers meet the standards included in voluntary certifications such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Under the USDA’s guidelines, an organic farm is required to “maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality.” On the list of acceptable actions are things like forest and wetland restoration or the planting of vegetative covers to maintain water quality.
“I think one of the ways that we could go about [helping] is trying to get in touch with farms that are trying to comply with these regulations and help them strategically figure out how to comply based on their specific land,” says Migliazzo, who is working with researchers at Portland State University to devise tools that can help wineries achieve certification through a program called LIVE. The number of farmers participating in such certification programs is vanishingly small, however, especially within the pork industry. According to the most recent U.S. Agricultural Census data, 14,707 hogs were certified organic in 2016, or 0.02 percent of the country’s total hog population of 74.6 million.
In the meantime, a partial solution may have arrived from an unlikely sector: energy. In October, Smithfield announced plans to cover a large percentage of its lagoons to capture methane gas for use as biofuel. The effort’s first phase comprises roughly 100 farms. Sealing the lagoons with a plastic membrane could significantly reduce the risk of overtopping in the event of a hurricane, but some experts say it will depend on the design of the system, and on whether or not farmers are still allowed to spray excess waste onto their fields.
As Migliazzo discovered, there is no quick solution that will solve the problem of hog waste in the United States. As an environmental justice issue, it is as complex as they come. What is certain is that if nothing is done—if hog farms continue to rely on the lands and waters of North Carolina to sop up their waste—the next storm will put vulnerable Americans at risk all over again.
Timothy A. Schuler writes about design, ecology, and the natural environment. He lives in Honolulu.