Tobacco, once the number-one crop in North Carolina, has now been replaced by something that's causing the state an even bigger headache: hogs. Right now in North Carolina, there are more pigs than people.
Correspondent Morley Safer first reported on this story from North Carolina in 1996. Now, seven years later, nothing seems to have changed.
In fact, it appears to be worse, and new studies reported a few weeks ago by The New York Times indicate that there might be very serious health problems for people living close to the fumes from hog waste - a big problem for a state that right now has more pigs than people.
At any given moment, North Carolina houses 10 million hogs in barns as large as football fields on huge industrial farms. These are corporate hogs, bred, born and raised in these indoor pens. Their future: just 165 days before the slaughter.
Americans want to think of pigs as cute and cuddly enough to be nominated
for Academy Awards.
But real-life "Babes" see no sun in their limited lives, have no hay to lie on, and no mud to roll in and do not talk. The sows live in tiny cages, so narrow they can't even turn around. They live over metal grates, and their waste is pushed through slats beneath them and flushed into huge pits.
It's the waste that's the problem. Pigs excrete four times as much waste as humans, and it's turning North Carolina into one vast toilet.
"The smell is so offensive that on the first whiff, you get a headache," says concerned citizen Gary Grant.
"It's primarily ammonia that you notice. The hydrogen sulfide smells more like rotten eggs," says Larry Cahoon from the University of North Carolina.
The stench comes from what the industry politely calls "lagoons." But retired hog farmer Don Webb calls it something else: "Cesspools, not lagoons. A lagoon is something a beautiful girl in a South Sea island swims in. A cesspool is something you put feces and urine in."
Cesspools or lagoons are just holding places for the 9.5 million tons of hog manure that's produced in North Carolina every year. There's real potential for damage when the manure is liquefied, and then sprayed as fertilizer onto the company's fields.
"The caveman - he used to go to the rest room inside the cave in a wooden bucket he carved," says Webb.
"And when he got through with that bucket, he would go out in front of the cave if it was real cold and just chuck it and spray it all out, and that's the same thing they're doing now."
There is so much manure that the fields of North Carolina can't absorb it all - and it's beginning to poison the groundwater and contaminate drinking wells.
There have been other problems. Lagoons have leaked and overflowed. Lagoon walls have broken, spilling out millions of gallons of hog manure and saturating fields even more.
And where does all this hog dung end up? In the streams and rivers of North Carolina, creating a growth in green algae that has closed rivers for swimming and killed thousands upon thousands of fish.
In fact, Webb got so mad when one hog operation threatened to build a factory near his place that he started his own Watch-Hog group.
"We're the cesspool of the United States," says Webb. "I mean, all you got to
do is see a map somewhere and put a commode on North Carolina, and that's what you got."
Webb accuses the industry of reckless disregard of the law, of illegal dumping when it thinks no one is looking. He's always looking and finding dead animals simply dumped in open pits.
What possesses a grown man to go out and slog through that stuff?
"This is God's water. This is God's land," says Webb.
And this is going into public waters in North Carolina.
"I heard all this stuff about, 'Oh, you'll get used to the odor, we
don't pollute, the cesspools don't leak,'" says Webb. "Well, you know, I had sense enough to know I didn't need a rocket scientist to tell me that cesspools would leak. But a good neighbor would never stink up his neighbors' homes with feces and urine."
Gary Grant mobilized his neighbors when seven hog farms were proposed for his community. His community of Tillery in Halifax County is poor, black, and rural -- a prime target for hog expansion.
"And they are saying that there will be 410 new farms built in North Carolina by the end of 1997," says Grant, who holds community meetings to reinforce resistance.
"And they can get away with it. Poor people are less prone to participate in voting. It's the avenue of least resistance."
Five years ago, Halifax County got the strictest laws in the state passed - tough rules about lagoons and groundwater monitoring systems, laws that are too tough for many companies.
But Grant doesn't believe this helped provide better jobs for the community. "They're all dirty boots jobs," he says. "All of the management comes from outside, leaves - doesn't have to live in the community."
And the response of the industry to Grant's plan has been negative.
"Well, when we first started there, I would go home evenings and get on my answering machine, and there would be threats like, 'Nigger, you're going to get killed,' and all of that," says Grant.
More than $1 billion is at stake here, and North Carolina has gone from the seventh-largest pork producer in the country to the second, with most of the hogs belonging to a few large corporations. It's also replaced a declining, even dying industry - tobacco. And it's put the small hog farmer out of business.
Now, corporations are using science to produce millions of carbon-copy pigs: high on pork, low on cost.
"How do you call it farming when you have an assembly line producing animals, which is the same way that we produce automobiles," asks Grant.
"I think this is industrial production. I don't even refer to it as farming," says Larry Cahoon, a scientist at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. "And I think that from start to finish, we have to consider this as an industry."
Hazardous industrial waste, Cahoon says. "Germs, bacteria, viruses such as flu virus, protozoan, various worm-type parasites."
The problem, says Cahoon, is that rural North Carolina depends on well water. But the state toxicologist says 30 percent of the wells tested near hog farms are already contaminated.
"It's slow-moving and it's not going to make the instant headlines that Love Canal made when the connection to toxic chemicals was established, but it's massive," says Cahoon.
It's difficult to get anyone in authority to talk about it. Bob Ivey, general manager of one of the largest hog farms in the country, is the only corporate hog farmer who would be interviewed, but only under the condition that we not mention the names of the companies he works with. He says the complaints about water pollution against his industry are all hogwash.
"Annually, we have someone from the Department of Water Quality come and review the operation," says Ivey.
"I'm happy that--and proud to be associated with an industry that is in the forefront of trying to design systems and have programs that work with farmers to be good environmental stewards."
But from 1993-1996, 115 farms have been caught illegally dumping hog waste into waterways, a number of them intentionally. In one farm there was a massive spill in 1995 when the walls of an eight-acre lagoon collapsed, spewing out 25 million gallons of liquid manure into rivers, farms and highways.
"I think that- that the industry has operated for many, many years, and to my knowledge, this was the first spill of that particular kind," says Ivey.
Neuse River Keeper Rick Dove disagrees. An environmental group hired him to monitor the waterways, and he's dismayed by the effect of so much manure being poured into the rivers.
"It looks like something - like a green slime, something you might expect in a movie like the 'Creature From the Black Lagoon' or something. It's just ugly," says Dave.
"Right now, in this time of year, in this river, I would not swim," says Dave, who also claims he wouldn't eat or touch anything in the river.
Why did it happen? Where was the legislature? Where were the county
"The county commissioners, the hog industry, was smart enough to get
to them real quick," says Webb. "And, also, the legislators here in North Carolina, most all of them have received money from the pork producers."
In fact, the largest pork producer in the world, Wendell Murphy, was a North Carolina state senator for 10 years. Some would say he's also responsible for creating dozens of laws protecting the pork industry. And the part owner of this farm is none other than North Carolina's U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth, who chairs a subcommittee on the environment. He also owns a $19 million stake in the hog business.
"So that's how well they are protected," says Grant. "It's like a sacred cow, it's a sacred hog, is what it is."
"It's big-time money. I mean, it's bigger than I realized," says Webb. "You've got some of the most powerful companies and corporations in the world involved in this thing, and it's been a real battle for middle-class and poor - grass-roots people to fight these people. But we're not quitters."
And back in Tillery, the fight could be on again.
Gary Grant's strict regulations might not be enough to keep an industry out that is looking to expand.
"Then we'll go back and strengthen the regulations," says Grant. "We will not allow you to come in and pollute our community and to kill off our people and to come in under the disguise of economic development and bringing destruction to us. We will not allow it."