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N.C. lawmakers seek final resolution to hog waste problem

MARGARET LILLARD • Mar 30, 2007 at 11:12 AM

RALEIGH, N.C. - It's been a decade since North Carolina banned pork farmers from building new hog waste lagoons.

In that time, environmentalists have tallied the ponds' damage to rivers and land, and neighbors have complained about their overpowering stench. Scientists have proposed new ways to deal with the sewage, but swine producers have swooned at the cost and complexity.

With the lagoon moratorium set to expire in September, there are several proposals at the statehouse on what to do next. While one would simply extend the moratorium for another few years, two others are aimed at resolving the debate permanently.

"People are interested in helping us find solutions now," said Lamont Futrell, who leads a grass-roots group of small swine farmers. "We're seeing the most interest ever in helping us solve this problem, and even helping turn it into something profitable."

North Carolina is second only to Iowa in hog farming, with $6.7 billion in annual sales, 46,000 jobs, and 10 million animals that produce 13 million pounds of manure and urine each day.

The waste is typically flushed from barns into open-air lagoons, and later sprayed on fields as fertilizer. It's an easy, relatively inexpensive way to deal with the material, but the sewage has polluted waterways during floods. Neighbors are angered by the smell and worried about potential health hazards.

The state began adopting stricter lagoon regulations in the early '90s. But a chain of spills - starting in 1995, when 25 million gallons of sewage leaked into the New River near Richlands - led lawmakers to ban construction of new lagoons in 1997, a "temporary" solution that has been extended four times.

The moratorium also has some loopholes, enough for the state's hog industry to expand by 500,000 swine in the past 10 years.

Last year, researchers at North Carolina State University offered five alternatives to handling the waste that while reducing ammonia and pathogen emissions are up to five times more expensive than a lagoon system.

"Some people felt that we might hit on a silver bullet," Futrell said. "We didn't find one."

But that research also provided a starting point for compromise.

Rep. Carolyn Justice, a Republican, introduced legislation Tuesday that would effectively block most new lagoons, but also help swine farmers willing to experiment with other ways to treat hog waste pay for the new technology. Her bill includes $50 million in grants for up to 100 farmers.

Justice said she deliberately avoided an outright ban, recognizing that lagoons are used in some of the new technologies - most notably a proposal backed by the North Carolina Pork Council and Progress Energy to capture methane gas for electricity generation.

"My belief is that one day the waste will be as valuable as the hogs, because they will find, either by burning it, by using it as energy, or by converting it to soil supplement, that the waste that we've all hated so much becomes something of value," she said.

Two other proposals are already before lawmakers. One would bar new lagoons and sprayfields that fail to meet environmental performance standards. The second would simply extend the moratorium for another three years.

"If we extend the moratorium three years or five years, we're going to get five years down the road and be sitting right where we are," Futrell said.

Farmers are happy to try better ways of doing business if the state will help with the bankroll, Futrell said.

"Farmers are innovative people. We can't just go out and buy everything, so we have to make things work for us. With enough people trying something, somebody will eventually come up with a system that's going to work," he said.

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