“Those things aren’t lagoons – they’re cesspools,” says Rick Dove, a senior adviser for Waterkeeper Alliance. He has been fighting agricultural water pollution in North Carolina since l993. About that time he was one of the founding members of this group, now a nationally respected environmental organization.
It was a panel discussion co-sponsored by the liberal Indy Week and Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal protection organization. Another panelist was Elsie Herring of Duplin County. Elsie represents what could have been a bevy of resident activists, all either African-American like her, Hispanic or Native American, because minority neighborhoods are where “the industry” chooses to locate both its factory farms and its slaughterhouses. Because of the pervasive smell, Elsie and her neighbors have not opened a window for 20 years.
The other panelist was Gene Baur, president and co-founder of the Farm Sanctuary. The outfit rescues “downed” animals from slaughterhouses or rescues from factory farms and transports them to a bucolic setting in which to live out their lives.
Some of us will recall that about the time that Waterkeeper Alliance was formed, our state was making not just national, but international news. It was all because horrific fish kills were being discovered in the Neuse River, and concomitant human health problems emerged, stemming from a deadly vampire virus called Pfiesteria.
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The virus caused the fish to hemorrhage and develop pock-like red sores on their bodies. Laboratory workers who handled the virus had neurological damage and respiratory symptoms a little while later, although many scientists deny that the organism is harmful to humans.
Scientists discovered what causes Pfiesteria to develop. It is untreated sewage, particularly animal waste from massive factory farming operations which is contained in large pools or “lagoons.” With enough rain, the containment ponds flood and the effluent spills into the Neuse and other rivers.
Now, here we are in another century, 24 years have passed and the problem continues because, you guessed it, there is money to be made here. Lots of it.
Enterprising humans figured out that many more dollars could be turned into profit by confining animals in large numbers in small spaces, and hiring minority workers at low wages to work both in the farms and the slaughterhouses. Like the word “farm,” animal “husbandry” (which implies a benevolent, caring relationship) was taken out of the nomenclature. “Intensive livestock production” was the euphemistic substitute.
The audience listened sympathetically to what was chiefly a rant about the human consequences of factory farms, but occasionally Mr. Baur would insert a comment about the animals, confined for life in spaces so small they are unable to move. Sows are repeatedly artificially impregnated as soon as one litter is able to be weaned, the piglets killed as soon as their weight is deemed acceptable.
Many lawsuits have been filed by people in the areas affected by nauseating odors, undrinkable water and crops that won’t grow in tainted soil. Defense attorneys depict the plaintiffs as greedy, lazy welfare recipients. How often have we seen that when an offender is cornered in a legal proceeding a common strategy is to blame the victim? This is what has been happening here, and a bill has been passed by the conservative-controlled state legislature that severely limits the amount of money a citizen can seek from big agriculture, making litigation just so much wasted effort.
One person after another offered possible, but complicated solutions to the hog waste problem, but it was Baur who seemed to make the most sense. If we didn’t breed these animals by the millions to be consumed by people who for cultural reasons just cannot stop eating bacon, pork and ham, the problem would not exist. He advocated getting meat, if we must have it, from family farms, thus putting Big Ag out of business.
I believe that just because something has been done for years, doesn’t mean it always has to be that way. With our planet’s ecosystems endangered, with so many humans courting health problems by eating an unhealthy diet, with minorities being consistently exploited by big money, with so many non-human creatures suffering at our hands, a radical change has to happen, and happen quickly.
Change is possible. We can and must vote with our forks.
Rondy Elliott, RN, BSN, MTS (Master of Theological Studies, Duke Divinity School) lives in Durham.