Nearly 10 years after Hurricane Floyd flooded dozens of hog-waste lagoons, Tar Heel leaders are still looking for ways to avoid a repeat. Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc., the state’s largest pork processor, kicked in $15 million for research, scientists have probed alternatives, and the General Assembly banned new and expanded lagoons two years ago. So why do more than 2,200 farms — about the same as at the time of the hurricane — still use lagoons? Because alternatives repeatedly have been trumped by cost.
“The technology for hog waste has been lagoons for years and years,” says Dewitt Hardy, environmental programs manager of the N.C. Department of Agriculture. “It’s hard to get away from it.” The latest effort to leave lagoons behind came in June, when the state signed up dozens of producers for a $1.1 million U.S. Department of Agriculture program to switch to other means of disposal.
Lagoons are shallow ponds typically holding 7 million gallons or more of waste. Solid waste settles, while liquids are sprayed on fields as fertilizer. During Floyd, floodwaters overran them, polluting rivers, streams and water supplies. Experts say hog farmers learned from the 1999 storm, but Michael Williams, director of the Animal and Poultry Waste Center at N.C. State University, fears another Floyd-like disaster would prompt radical environmental laws that could drive the state’s $2 billion-a-year pork industry elsewhere, possibly to other countries.
After Floyd, the state bought and closed dozens of lagoons in flood plains. Research has focused on how to minimize environmental danger without hurting profit. Two Harnett County farmers are testing one way to do it. They’re trying out technology that will capture methane — which has a greenhouse impact 23 times that of carbon dioxide — by covering lagoons. They could sell the gas or get credits for keeping it out of the atmosphere. Credits could be sold to companies such as utilities that produce carbon dioxide.
In the meantime, Williams says management practices — including lowering waste levels in ponds to prevent overflows, improved pumping of waste and new environmental rules imposed by companies on their contract growers — have reduced the danger of another catastrophe. “There’s no question we’ve significantly improved from a decade ago. But we’ve still got a long ways to go.”
A Second bank sank
North Carolina went 16 years between bank failures. But it has had two within two months this year, both in Wilmington. In mid-June, federal and state regulators shut down Cooperative Bankshares Inc., the parent company of Cooperative Bank. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. sold most of the assets to Troy-based First Bancorp, and Cooperative’s 24 offices reopened as First Bank branches. In April, regulators closed Cape Fear Bank Corp. and sold its assets to Charleston, S.C.-based First Financial Holdings Inc. (Regional Report, May) Why two failures in Wilmington? N.C. State University economist Mike Walden isn’t sure. “Maybe it was just a fluke that there were two banks there that made management and investment errors.” But he notes that coastal North Carolina had the biggest jump in values during the real-estate boom, which means it also had farther to fall.