North Carolina’s hog industry has been the subject of litigation, investigation, legislation and regulation. But are its health and environmental risks finally getting too much?
Rene Miller pokes a lavender-frocked leg out of her front door and grimaces. It’s a bright April afternoon, and the 66-year-old Miller, with a stoic expression and a dark crop of curls, braces herself for the walk ahead.
Her destination isn’t far away – just a half-mile down a narrow country road, flanked by sprawling green meadows, modest homes and agricultural operations – but the journey takes a toll. Because as she ambles down the two-lane street, stepping over pebbles and sprouts of grass, the stench takes hold, an odor so noxious that it makes your eyes burn and your nose run. Miller likens it to “death” or “decomposition” to being surrounded by spoiled meat.
As bad as it is today, she says, it’s nothing compared with the way it is on a muggy afternoon in August, when the stink hovering in the stagnant, humid air can nearly “knock you off your feet”.
Still, Miller makes this trip often, to honor her family and pay her respects. She points ahead to her family cemetery, which sits just off Veachs Mill Road in Warsaw, an hour’s drive east from Raleigh. It’s a stone’s throw from her one-story, white-walled house, part of a tract of land her great-grandmother inherited as part of a post-slavery land grant. When she gets to the cemetery, she stops in front of her nephew’s grave, recalling his life and his death to cancer. Purple and yellow wildflowers nip at its edges; nearby, a Steelers flag rustles in the wind.
“How long have we lived here? Always,” she says, gazing at her grandmother’s headstone. “And we always will. Nobody else will ever live on this land.”
The odor isn’t just her problem. It’s ubiquitous across parts of eastern North Carolina. It’s the smell of hog country, of millions of pigs and even more tons of their feces. For years, their waste and its stink have been the subject of litigation, investigations, legislation and regulation. A growing body of research has documented the industry’s health and environmental risks. The issue has been well examined in the media, too. The New York Times and the Washington Post covered it. So have Dateline and 60 Minutes. The News & Observer earned a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on it in 1995.
But the stench – and its consequences, both for the lower-income, largely African American neighbors of hog farms and the state’s environment – lingers.