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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Better Pig Sty

Air Date: Week of

Today, we bring you the second in our two part series on the pollution caused by factory pork production. Last week we reported on how many commercial hog operations have moved into western states to avoid regulation. This week we report from North Carolina, where tighter regulation has led to a two-year moratorium on large-scale pig farms. The state has also asked its agriculture department to research new ways to handle hog wastes. As Diane Toomey of member station WUNC in Chapel Hill reports, there seem to be plenty of ideas.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Today, we bring you the second in our 2-part series on the pollution caused by factory pork production. Last week we reported that many commercial hog operations had moved into western states to avoid regulation. Today, we travel to North Carolina, where tighter regulation has led to a 2-year moratorium on large- scale pig farms. In the meantime, the state has also asked its agricultural department to research new ways to handle hog wastes. And as Diane Toomey of member station WUNC in Chapel Hill reports, there seem to be plenty of ideas.

(Small road traffic)

TOOMEY: Turn down the Johnston County road where Keith Barefoot runs his hog farm and you're not in the country, but in a sprouting suburban neighborhood commuting distance from the state capitol. His land, dotted with hog houses, is an oddball among manicured lawns and neat one-story homes.

(A door opens)

TOOMEY: He admits he was fielding some complaints from his neighbors.

BAREFOOT: Don't let anyone kid you. I don't know about their hog farm, but ours had an odor.

TOOMEY: Mr. Barefoot used to handle the waste from his 3,000 hogs in the typical way: flushing it into a 5 million gallon open lagoon. Critics call them cesspools. And occasionally spraying the waste onto a crop as fertilizer.

BAREFOOT: We sprayed those fields out there. You had a terrible odor, and you had a dark spot, because you could see where that irrigation gun went round and round. But if you put it out here now you won't smell anything and you won't know where we irrigated.

TOOMEY: That's because three years ago Mr. Barefoot decided it was time for a change. With lagoon spills and complaints about odor and groundwater pollution making headlines, the veteran farmer joined an experiment. He figured if we could put a man on the moon, we could clean up a hog lagoon.


BAREFOOT: You can tell it worked because here's where a coon has walked in -- where did I see him come out? Right there. He's been down in it. See where he's walked across? That's the coon's track.

TOOMEY: Mr. Barefoot points to the banks of his old lagoon, an area that raccoons and other wildlife once sensibly avoided. Now it's a watering hole for ducks, frogs, and terrapins, thanks, he says, to oxygen and the right kind of microbes.


HENNIG: From the four houses the waste is all proceeding. It's being gravity afloat into this first bio-reactor. It used to be going directly into that old lagoon, but we've now intercepted that, and it's all coming in here.

TOOMEY: Ed Hennig is with Bion Technologies, the company which helped Mr. Barefoot drastically reduce the odor here. He says his patented system also reduces the level of nitrogen in the wastewater. Typically, when liquid waste is sprayed onto a field, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus run off into waterways and can spark algae blooms and fish kills. The Bion Bioreactor is actually 3 modified waste ponds. Together, they contain just a fraction of the water used in Mr. Barefoot's old lagoon. The first pond looks like a giant bubble bath. A pontoon-mounted aerator scoots on its surface.

HENNING: As the air's being injected in, and with the waste that's in here, a very strong biomass is being built of bacteria.

TOOMEY: In other words, bacteria glomms onto the waste, eats the nitrogen compounds in it, and converts them into an organic material. In the next two ponds, these solids settle to the bottom. Unlike raw hog waste, which leaches its nutrients too easily to be of commercial value, this aquatic composting system fixes, or stabilizes nutrients, in a hummus-like end-product called bio- solids.

(Splashing water)

HENNIG: This is converted biosolids. You want to take a sniff?

TOOMEY: Nothing


TOOMEY: Researchers at North Carolina State University are looking at the Bion idea and 12 other alternatives to the simple hole in the ground, spray- gun scenario. This baker's dozen has a couple of common themes. Add oxygen and let bacteria have their way with either the liquid, the solids, or both. These experimental systems show some promise in solving the twin problems of odor and nutrient loading of nearby streams. But small farm advocates say there's another problem; that's size. Most of the systems Dr. Williams and his colleagues are studying still involve lagoons. Lagoons of any type can breach, and, these critics say, concentrate nutrients unnecessarily. John Crabtree, with the Center for Rural Affairs, wants to change the whole system.

CRABTREE: If we choose to raise hogs in a different fashion, which a lot of small, independent producers still do, they're in a deep bedded system with a lot of straw or cornstalk bedding, the manure's mixed with that bedding and it's kept in a solid form, stored in a solid form, and put on the soil in a solid form. From an environmental perspective you just run into a lot less problems with that type of manure.

TOOMEY: Because straw helps retain the nutrients, reducing the chance of runoff. This is something that isn't done at large hog operations, because it's much less labor-intensive to flush waste out of hog houses with water. Mr. Crabtree says investing research dollars into reducing pollution from these mega-farms simply legitimizes a flawed system.

CRABTREE: The silver bullet that's going to solve these environmental problems is to move pork production back to small, widely-dispersed operations with access to enough crop land to safely spread the manure. The real silver bullet is being overlooked.

TOOMEY: But the Environmental Defense Fund of North Carolina says corporate consolidation of hog farming is a genie who's already out of the bottle. The group says something has to be done about the waste produced by the more than 9 million hogs on the ground in this state. Senior scientist Joe Rudek says the real question is cost. How much the state will make large hog producers pay to clean up their operations.

RUDEK: Right now, the pork production in the United States costs less than anyplace else in the world. It costs about half what it costs to produce pork in Asia, costs about 20% more in Canada than it does here. So, from that perspective, there's probably some room for an increase in the cost.

TOOMEY: Dr. Rudek stresses that systems which produce a marketable product, such as fertilizer or methane gas, could offset some of that cost. Meanwhile, North Carolina's Department of Agriculture faces a May first deadline to propose alternatives to traditional lagoons. But the Agency still hasn't decided what to recommend. Officials say the cost of retrofitting will be considered. Once the Agency makes its recommendations, the state legislature may accept or reject them. This is where public opinion and political will come in. The outcome may depend on just how much politicians believe North Carolinians want to reduce the pollution coming from their state's leading agricultural industry. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.



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