I saw an Associated Press story this morning about the start of a federal civil trial involving pork-producing giant Smithfield Foods and folks who unfortunately live near massive industrial livestock operations — sites labeled quaintly as “farms.” This is apparently the first of dozens of lawsuits stemming from neighbors of the facilities where millions of hogs are raised for sale annually who claim, according to the AP story, to have “suffered headaches, sinus problems and intense, putrid smells that can’t be removed from clothing or household fabrics.”
I have no doubt this is true. I witnessed some of this when I worked for the Jacksonille Daily News from 1992 to 2007. Nearby counties like Duplin and Sampson were and still are ground zero for industrial hog-producing operations where sometims millions of gallons of hog urine and feces are contained in open-pits known as “lagoons” then sprayed on nearby fields.
Yeah, that’s neighborly.
I was working as managing editor at the Daily News when this incident occurred at Oceanview Farms near Richlands.
An estimated 25 million gallons of hog waste spilled into a tributary of the New River near Richlands and flowed downstream through Jacksonville and to the ocean. It was ugly, smelly and pollution-inducing. The lagoon ruptured during a summer period of heavy rainfall. The crop farmers who watched this fetid plume flow over their fields en route to the river were shocked. This was 1995. Technology has improved since then but companies have to shift to it in order for things to get much better. And the river did get better, but it took some time and attention.
This is the crux of the lawsuit.
It reminded me of a column I wrote a few years ago after moving to Burlington about waste spills in general and the 1995 incident specifically. It was an environmental disaster folks.
I’ve written that particular word as a lead before. I do so mainly because it often fits perfectly. In the news business, almost nothing is brand-spanking new — until, of course, it is.
But the latter isn’t the norm. Usually the stories we write about are things that happen again and again. The adage about history repeating itself is abundantly true. Clichés are usually stupid, but not always wrong.
So call them echoes. Call them ricochets. Call them the memories of an old-timer who’s spent more hours at the office than at home over the past 30 years.
Whatever the term, though, there’s no doubt that things happening today often stir the ghosts of stories from long ago.
The sewage spill in Burlington on Jan. 27 was like that. So was the coal ash spill in Eden last week. When 3.5 million gallons of untreated sewage leaked into the Haw River from the East Burlington Wastewater Treatment Plant or 85,000 tons of ash fell into the Dan River, it transported me to another place and a different time.
All the way back to 1995 — and something at that point I had never heard of before.
IT WAS a Thursday night in June. I’m not sure how I recall that particular detail, but it was, trust me.
I was working late at the Jacksonville Daily News in North Carolina’s Onslow County because that’s what I did back in the days before I got hitched. Onslow County was known then and now as the “Home of Camp Lejeune.” But for a brief time after this particular Thursday night, Onslow County became known as the site of the worst farm-related environmental incident in history. In another year, it would be found on a snarky list of the world’s worst places, alongside Chernobyl.
Call that a stretch.
Anyway, we got a call at the office at around 8 p.m. It was from a guy we dealt with all the time. He lived out near Richlands, a small farming community outside Jacksonville. The sign on the town limits at the time billed it as “The Town of Perfect Water.”
The caller was a frequent critic of hog farms. And when I say hog farms I’m not talking about a pen with a few pigs wallowing around in it. These are industrial-size corporate operations with hog populations rivaling the number of humans in a fair-size city. He usually complained about the stench created by his neighbors. Pork industry folks liked to call it “the smell of money.”
This time, though, he wasn’t calling about the odor. He was frantic, in fact, and didn’t make a whole lot of sense. He said hog manure in waves was rushing toward a nearby tributary of the New River, a brackish waterway wholly contained in Onslow County and full of odd creatures like gar and alligators, or more noted saltwater wildlife like oysters. The latter especially prevalent as the river pushed closer to Sneads Ferry and the Atlantic Ocean.
We got off the phone and tried to figure out what the man was babbling about. It seemed like crazy talk to us. In less than 30 minutes, we got a clearer picture. The man on the phone this time was a Daily News camera room operator who farmed tobacco on the side.
“There’s a river of hog—- washing over my tobacco field,” he said. “Y’all need to come out here.”
WE MANAGED to piece together a small story that night. It basically said that state environmental investigators were headed to the site of a farm incident in which a hog waste lagoon allegedly ruptured. The amount of damage was not immediately known.
In 24 hours, it was apparent we had an epic event on our hands. And this was at an intellectual period in American history when the word “epic” wasn’t used to describe a good weekend or a slice of pizza.
What we saw the day after was a nightmare. A hog lagoon had indeed ruptured at Oceanview Farms — largely due to excessive rainfall, which limited the amount of spraying the operation could do to empty the massive crater of hog … mess. The lagoon simply couldn’t take it anymore, something designers said would never happen. Funny how things that aren’t supposed to happen absolutely don’t, until they do.
In all, 25 million gallons of hog waste found its way to the New River. That’s not a misprint. Oceanview once tried to say it wasn’t really 25 million gallons — more like 22.5 million. I’m damned if I can understand the argument.
We published stories about it for weeks, not days. One detailed the orange plume of hog waste people watched ease down the river discoloring all in its path as it moved through downtown Jacksonville toward Sneads Ferry. We explained fecal coliform levels and freeboard construction practices. We wrote about fines and lawsuits. We reported on fish kills and seafood safety. And when regulations about hog waste lagoons changed as a result of the incident, we reported on that, too.
The good news is that some things improved but not all. Many businesses changed some practices, laws were altered, the number of high-profile incidents lessened and lessons were learned. Often, though, things are forgotten. Neighbors still don’t like it. I don’t know if I would either.