Hog waste lagoons hold multiple toxins that can infiltrate local water supplies. Image courtesy Waterkeeper Alliance.

HOG-TIED: Hurricane Florence Impacts in North Carolina

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.”

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