In North Carolina’s hog country, a diverse group of activists works together in the ongoing fight for clean air and water.
his is a place you might find yourself if you got very lost on your way from Raleigh to Wilmington. Deep in the rural hinterlands of eastern North Carolina lie towns like Warsaw or Beulaville (which even the GPS knows is pronounced “Beula-vull”), where anyone with any kind of money spends their evenings cultivating vegetable gardens with their tractors, and anyone without seems to pass most of their time walking along long, dusty highways, presumably on their way to the grocery store, or to daycare, or to work. This is Duplin County, a sparsely populated place that has just one claim to fame: pigs. This is a place where sheriffs and senators alike earn their money and power in pounds of flesh.
I am here with Larry Baldwin, a gentle giant of a white man who rides a motorcycle and has a tattoo on his arm that reads “Waterkeeper.” He is my guide, in a way, shepherding me around this part of the state to talk with community organizers for environmental justice. He is a tireless source of facts and figures, which he delivers with perennial enthusiasm. “Seventy percent of antibiotics produced in the country go to livestock,” he tells me. “One adult hog produces eight to ten times the fecal waste of a human,” he says. (I’ve found statistics that range from two to fourteen times the amount of human waste, so I suppose it depends on whom you ask.) Just that morning we had flown over the same land in an airplane the size of a car, from which we could see the silver holding pens and dark pink lagoons of the industrial hog farms. On the ground, many of them are concealed from the road behind stands of trees. Unfortunately for the residents of Duplin County, this does not prevent the odors from penetrating their homes. Nor does it prevent the water from being contaminated.
At the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH) office, a modest trailer not unlike many of the homes around these parts, Larry greets organizers Elsie Herring and Devon Hall with hugs all around. Elsie and Devon are both Black, and they hail originally from farming families in Duplin County. Elsie has short gray hair and is dressed primly, while Devon sports a wide-brimmed straw hat and has a Bluetooth attached to his ear. While Devon takes a quick call, Elsie updates Larry on the status of a fifty-five-year-old relative, who will have to relearn how to walk and talk after his recent brain surgery.
It may be my mind’s insistence on seeking out patterns that causes me to notice how the life of each community member I meet seems in some way defined by serious illness. Stories of late-term miscarriage, brain tumors, and unexplained childhood disease and death punctuate my two-day stay in hog country. These stories are not offered as evidence of anything — they are told offhand, in response to casual inquiries as to the speaker’s well-being, and no one seems to regard them with anything other than dignified acceptance. Perhaps poor healthcare could provide an explanation. Perhaps the Southern tendency to overshare means these folks are more forthcoming about what would be considered private family matters in another part of the country. Perhaps it’s mere coincidence. In any case, I have nothing beyond anecdotal evidence to offer.
There is, however, research to substantiate claims that living in an environment steeped in hog waste and airborne ammonia — as most residents of Duplin County live — can impact respiratory health and lead to high blood pressure. Some research even faults exposure with short-term memory loss and damage to the nervous system. Several other studies find no significant correlation with any kind of health problems. Yet REACH, along with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and the Waterkeeper Alliance (with whom Larry works), contend that the odor alone is cause enough to jointly file a Title VI complaint under the Civil Rights Act. They allege that Smithfield Foods is knowingly exploiting the most impoverished communities in North Carolina, those whose populations are predominantly Black, Latino, and Native American, and that this represents a discriminatory practice. (Recent studies have already proved that, in general, North Carolina industrial hog operations disproportionately affect people of color.) The groups have petitioned the EPA to interfere with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to ensure that it is conducting proper due diligence before issuing permits for Smithfield’s concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Larry tells me that DENR typically just “rubber-stamps” these permits.
After many months of silence, the EPA responded in February 2015 that it had agreed to undertake an investigation of DENR — an unlikely victory, since the majority of Title VI complaints are rejected without investigation — but Larry and the others are unsure when the investigation will take place. Much older cases (filed as early as 1996) remain unresolved, a fact that prompted Earthjustice to pursue litigation earlier this summer on behalf of five communities that had been waiting for EPA decisions for more than a decade. In fact, an EPA finding in support of the complaint would be historic; the Center for Public Integrity reports that, “In its 22-year history of processing environmental discrimination complaints, the office has never once made a formal finding of a Title VI violation.”
Much of these activists’ efforts are spent just convincing people to fight. “When people have been depressed and beat down for so long … it’s hard to get them to change their mindset,” says Devon. “When you look in the Black community, a lot of times people, they just don’t get it that, ‘Hey, I’ve got some rights here … I don’t have to take that over and over and over again.’”
For Elsie, the EPA’s acknowledgement of their complaints represents a major step in the right direction after decades of fighting her way through bureaucracy to no avail. She began working on the issue in the early 1990s when she moved back home from New York to care for her sick mother. Elsie says she was sitting on the porch with her family one evening when a sprayer came on and liquid waste began to rain down on them.
After that, Elsie says, “I just started with my computer and my telephone.” She contacted the police department, who told her to contact then-sheriff Garner (a hog farmer himself), who told her to contact the health department, who told her to contact DENR. She wrote to Governor Hunt, the EPA, and the Justice Department.
“The county commissioner, the industry itself, your representative, DENR, air quality, water quality, as you go on with the ladder, to a state level, federal level, still no one has at this point been willing to investigate our claims,” she says. “And we’ve been in our homes long before the industry came into existence. My mother lived on that same fifteen-acre tract of land for ninety-nine years.”
At some point, Elsie began to suspect foul play. “The spray field was on our property, and through further investigation, we found out that the two hog houses and the lagoon were on our family property,” she says. “See, they went into the Register of Deeds office and they changed my grandfather — my mother’s father, he bought the land back in the 1800s — they changed his will and his deeds.”
When I ask who “they” are, Elsie says she’s pretty sure “they” are hog industry officials. But of course all of this — the allegation itself, as well as the blame — is impossible to prove.
I tell Elsie that her story reminds me of “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 Atlantic article that detailed how Black people have been historically swindled by a racist real estate complex. Elsie nods and says she has read the piece. She knows that to parse out these individual instances from the larger pattern of abuse is to fail to see the forest for the trees. She says, “See, that’s what I’m saying, this thing was well planned and very systemic, because you have to have all the people in the right places to do these things.” But I suspect she also knows just how difficult it can be to talk of such things without inviting comparisons to improbable conspiracy theories and monsters in the closet.
The urban areas I’ve called home for the past several years are currently grappling with an entirely different set of racial issues. While I was in North Carolina, Baltimore was in the midst of its own revolution, protesting the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of six police officers. The National Guard had just been called in. There was a curfew in effect. Video footage of protestors and police throwing rocks at one another was making its rounds on the Internet, and the Internet was evaluating the footage in violently oppositional ways.
I don’t know if the Baltimore protestors know about environmental racism or about the plight of this backwoods community, but this community knows about them. When I mention the “Black Lives Matter” movement, Elsie and Devon rattle off the names of the dead as though reciting the rosary. I consider myself to be pretty on top of the news — or at least, on top of this particular kind of news — but these two old-timers mention at least a few names I have not heard before.
As Larry and I walk back to the car, I think I detect a strange heaviness to the air that I don’t remember noticing an hour’s drive away in my native Greenville. This may also be a product of my overactive imagination; the wind isn’t bad, and the temperature is a comfortable sixty-five degrees, so the stench is hardly noticeable. But prior to my trip, I’d read enough about the possibility of the detrimental health effects of living among the hog farms that I suppose I am prone to interpret every tickle in my throat or watery eye as a reaction to an undetectable miasma.
It’s rare to be able to trace a term back to a time, a place, a person in history. In the case of “environmental racism,” the consensus seems to be that it was first given a name by Dr. Benjamin Chavis in the late 1970s, in Warren County, which is also in eastern North Carolina.
In the wake of the civil rights movement, the first official battle for environmental justice was fought in 1982 on a country road in Warren County, where a landfill containing toxic waste was to be sited against the wishes of the primarily poor, Black community surrounding it. Members of the community — who had initially filed complaints a few years earlier because a transformer company had dumped thirty thousand gallons of PCB-laden waste on the sides of the roads — lay down in the road to prevent trucks bearing the same contaminated soil from passing on their way to the landfill. Five hundred were arrested. In the end, the soil was deposited in the landfill, but the community’s protests succeeded in preventing toxic waste from around the state from being trucked into the site, as well, as was initially proposed.
Subsequent research conducted by Congress’s General Accounting Office found the claim of “environmental racism” legitimate; fully three out of four toxic waste dumps in the Southeast were located in Black communities. Another study released in 2007 showed that not only was race still the single greatest determining factor in the location of toxic landfills (income was second), but that environmental racism had actually worsened over the twenty years since that initial study.
Once people knew to look for it, environmental racism turned up everywhere. Another 2002 study out of Southern California demonstrated that Asians, Latinos, and African-Americans in the region experience a lifetime cancer risk from air toxins that, even when controlled for income, is nearly 50 percent greater than the risk white counterparts face. And Native American reservations are frequently targeted for toxic waste disposal and other environmental health hazards.
The Warren County protests drew the attention of civil rights leaders, environmentalists, and media from around the country, but the nation’s attention span proved to be limited. Ask a handful of climate change activists, and few will have heard of Warren County. It’s even possible that many of them won’t have a solid grasp of the concept of environmental racism. The environmental justice movement is a sort of redheaded stepchild of the larger environmental movement — which is not to say that your average recreational environmentalists wouldn’t care about this issue if they knew it existed. But as is frequently emphasized in literature about environmental justice, this movement, championed by and for poor Black communities, has little in common with the concerns of (mostly white and wealthy) preservationists such as National Parks and “Save the Whale” advocates. Consequently, their stories have a way of not getting told.
The activists I met in hog country believe that there are invisible threads connecting Duplin County to Warren County, Warren County to the 2014 coal ash spill in Eden, NC, the coal ash spill to an outdated landfill in Orange County, NC’s Black community, and all of this, even, to Hurricane Katrina.
When I was a little girl, around the age when other American students might have been going on field trips to the aquarium or the science museum, my class was put onto a bus and taken out to an industrial hog farm. This was no petting zoo; in fact, I didn’t see a single pig, except for perhaps a glimpse stolen from between the slats in a truck or through the door of the holding pen. Instead, they walked us right up to the edge of the lagoon. My teacher covered her mouth with a handkerchief while a farmhand told us the alarming ratio of humans to pigs in North Carolina.
I can’t say exactly what it was that we were meant to learn from that outing. It may have been planned out of some convoluted sense of state pride for our agricultural prowess — the very same pride that motivated our state government to keep cigarette taxes laughably low, even as our health education teachers told us with a wink and a nudge that we should not smoke. Or maybe it was meant to teach us something about sacrifice. It could have been the teacher’s well-intentioned bid to convince us to stay in school.
At that point, I would have been a relatively new kid, an implant from the Midwest. I was still trying to understand a lot of complex things about regional identity that I’d never had to consider before. And on the list of repugnant things I could not begin to comprehend, this field trip was right up there with the “n” word and grits. How could I love a state like this? But the field trip did teach me two things: pigs were every bit as filthy as the Bible said, and pigs really mattered to North Carolina. If I had been older, it might have taught me that North Carolina is dedicated to hog farming at just about any cost.
Though I already had abundant experience with the smell of hog waste, I didn’t realize it could reach you in a plane two thousand feet in the air. But sure enough, when Larry opens the window so we can take photos of the landscape below, there it is, that stench so redolent of my childhood confusion. “They know we’re up here!” shouts Larry into the headset as he points to a pick-up truck on the ground. “Let’s see if I can get him to smile for the camera.”
Larry tells me that he charters a plane and pilot about once a week to keep an eye on the area. He looks for any clear violations of the laws that govern when and where the hog farmers are allowed to spray.
Here is how it works: The farms (most of which are owned by mammoth Smithfield Foods) collect a cocktail of pig waste, hormones, antibiotics, blood, and pig corpses in the giant holes or “lagoons” they’ve dug in the ground adjacent to the barns. When the lagoons fill up, the contents are sprayed onto a field on the farm’s property “under the pretense of fertilization,” as Larry puts it. The problem is that the oversaturated land does not absorb all the waste, and the rest runs off into waterways and groundwater. Spills and illegal dumping of waste are also not uncommon.
Though small, family-owned hog farms have always used hog manure as fertilizer, it’s impossible to equate that system with the current one. Previously, the pigs roamed around, dropping their waste directly onto the land. And because there weren’t nearly as many of them per acre, some semblance of natural balance could be maintained because the land was “fertilized” in moderation.
It doesn’t take much imagination to reckon that this new system could cause some problems. First, the increased levels of nitrates and phosphates in the water systems can lead to algae overgrowths and massive fish kills. Second, the “non-therapeutic” antibiotics mixed in the pigs’ feed may breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can sometimes cause infections in humans that are unresponsive to standard medical treatment.
Furthermore, a study released this January, co-authored by University of North Carolina public health professor Steve Wing, showed that nearby streams were contaminated with fecal bacteria levels beyond state and federal guidelines for water quality. Many samples showed excessive levels of E. coli and Enterococcus. Hog waste can also carry viruses, parasites, and even MRSA. (MRSA is a nasty antibiotic-resistant staph infection that I myself contracted when living in Greenville, and from which I still have deep scars on my legs. At the time, doctors guessed that I had contracted it from a locker room, but now I suspect that it was from swimming in the Tar River.) Fishermen have reported that after exposure to the water, their skin will sometimes develop the same sores that tend to show up on dead fish. These are all compelling reasons to avoid swimming and fishing in contaminated streams. Back at the REACH office, Elsie and Devon had told me a story of someone they knew who accidentally stepped in water contaminated with hog waste. After this man got an infection, the doctors amputated part of his foot, and then a greater area of his foot, until eventually he died.
“When I used to go fishing, it used to be nothing to wade in that water… in tennis shoes, or barefoot! Would I do that now? No way!” Devon tells me. “If I catch a fish, you rest assured, it will be a catch and release.”
When I ask Larry about fishing in the area, he adds that this is a major problem for some. “There are still people in North Carolina who I refer to as subsistence fishermen,” he says. “There are low-income communities that, if they’re not able to go down to the creek and catch a bass, they’re not putting food on the table.”
As we fly, Larry points out the spray fields, which can typically be recognized by the concentric circles that the pivot sprayers create on the land. This is the first time Larry has worked with our pilot, who just moved up from Florida. The pilot takes an interest in Larry’s work, asking him all kinds of questions about the facilities and their waste management. “I like you already,” Larry says to him, “because you call them what they are: cesspools. A lagoon is something a pretty lady in a bikini would lounge around.”
Word choice is political to Larry. He wants to demystify industrial farming, rob Smithfield of the euphemisms it employs to make everyone feel safer. He wants to call things what they are. Cesspools, not “lagoons.” Toxic waste, not “organic fertilizer.” Facility, not “farm.” Hog grower, not “farmer.”
I was twelve years old when Hurricane Floyd hit North Carolina in 1999. In terms of historical significance, Floyd was to eastern North Carolina what Katrina was to New Orleans, though Floyd caused far fewer fatalities. To this day, people talk about it with the same reverence and awe that you would any Biblical disaster. They shut down our school for weeks and used it as a temporary homeless shelter for people whose homes had been flooded. Because I was on the cusp of the age of reason, I remember at once enjoying the excitement that accompanied such irregularity, and also being aware that I should show respect for what I knew to be a tragic event for much of Greenville’s citizenry. Floyd resulted in the nation’s third largest evacuation in history, and according to NOAA, fifty-seven people died, most by drowning. Ten thousand were relocated to temporary housing.
The worst things that happened to my family were that we lost power and running water, and my dad had to get stitches because he tripped over a bike when the streetlights went out. On the night we lost power, all the neighborhood kids collected at a neighbor’s house, where we slept as a giant pile of warm bodies in the TV room for the next few days. We played hide-and-seek with flashlights and shrieked when we were snuck up on. We probably had some first kisses. We couldn’t fully understand the damage, because — excepting one neighbor who had built the first floor of his house into the ground next to the creek and whose car ended up floating in his driveway — we were safe and dry in our suburban homes.
Naeema Muhammad, of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, had a decidedly different experience of the flood; as an activist, she was up close and personal with a lot of devastated, displaced survivors (not victims — she would not allow them to use that word). “Princeville, which is a historical African-American town, down right on the other side of Rocky Mount, was underwater for like seven days,” she said.
Those citizens were moved to temporary housing in Rocky Mount — camper-style trailers that would sometimes house up to eight people. “When we heard that they had moved all the people — four hundred families — from Princeville over to Rocky Mount, we went to see where they moved ’em to,” said Naeema. “And when we got back there to where they moved them to, it was very close by to the women’s prison in Rocky Mount, but it was also on top of what had been an active landfill up until the day of the flood. And then we found out that coal ash had been dumped in that landfill by this company that was sitting straight across the road from where this land was, ReUse Technology.”
This is a classic example of what one environmental discrimination study referred to as a process of “building on existing dis-amenities.” “What seems to be rational land use, after all, may be predetermined by political processes that designate disenfranchised communities as sacrifice zones,” the article reads. “Indeed, land use decisions often build on accumulated disadvantage.” One might also consider the siting of hog farms on a floodplain — which happens to be populated by poor minorities — as another example of “accumulated disadvantage.” The result, in each case, is an overburdened community that must face a variety of environmental risks. Hog farms could arguably be considered “accumulated risk,” since a major flood leads inevitably to dead hogs and hog waste in the water supply, as it did during Hurricane Floyd, when thirty thousand hogs drowned in the flood.
After trying to get answers from the state and the county — both of which “claimed that we didn’t know what we was talking about,” according to Naeema — they sought advice from Steve Wing, who is a board member of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network in addition to being a professor and researcher. One of Wing’s students chose to do his thesis on the issue. “When he got done with all his research and compiled his report, he was able to show that that had in fact been a coal ash landfill, and that it had not been properly tested,” said Naeema.
A week or so after Floyd hit Greenville, some friends and I decided, probably at our parents’ suggestion, that we would bake cookies and take them up to the road to our school, which was barely recognizable to us. Mothers comforted wailing children on cots, and supplies were tossed in big piles that no one had had time to sort through yet. We had not baked enough cookies. The gym, the hallways, the classrooms, where we had so recently traded inane gossip and copied homework, were full of people, and they were, nearly all of them, Black people. Black people who had lost absolutely everything.
My mother tried to explain something about real estate and poverty and race, but the lesson was lost on me. It wasn’t until high school when I spent some time trying to swim on the banks of the Tar River, navigating around discarded refrigerators and stoves, that I began to understand. Or I thought I did. Now I’m not so sure. Now I wonder: how completely can we blame that phenomenon on poverty alone? Now, as I explore the roles of coincidence versus malicious intent in the siting of toxic waste facilities, I wonder: to what extent can we call it an accident that Black populations always seem to live in flood zones?
The activists here in Duplin County are not your typical environmental activists. They are not radicals. They don’t ride bikes or shop at Whole Foods or wear Tevas. They are not vegetarians. Just as one gets the sense in North Carolina that smoking is patriotic, so these folks talk about bacon as though it’s an inalienable right. “You don’t mess with a man’s bacon,” Larry told me. “We’re not anti-agriculture, we’re not anti-farming, we’re not anti-meat. But we are anti-pollution.” I made a point of asking each person I interviewed whether they ate Smithfield Foods products, and they all said yes, they did.
These organizers have no interest in putting Smithfield out of business; they know the industry is good for North Carolina’s economy. When you get down to it, their demands are minimal: they want to live in peace. Over the years, community members have initiated multiple nuisance suits against industrial hog operations in an attempt to earn such peace (Wallace and Graham alone currently represents over four hundred such complainants), but their petition to the EPA is a new approach. They want hog wastewater to be treated in the same way human wastewater is treated. But while there are various ways to go about that, and researchers have proposed a number of solutions, the industry insists that they are all too expensive.
As part of a settlement for a previous lawsuit, Smithfield and another company paid $17 million for a study, led by NC State professor Mike Williams, to look at alternative technologies. Five alternatives were proposed, but the industry claimed they couldn’t afford any of them. Williams later told Raleigh’s News and Observer that he was surprised that the state did not offer any incentives to put these technologies in place. Quartz reports that Smithfield farms in Utah already successfully use one of the proposed options, “covered lagoons in which methane is captured and used to generate biogas,” which have the added benefit of mitigating the odors. Inventors Don Lloyd and Tom Demmy have also developed a “closed loop” system, which treats the liquid waste and reuses the resultant water to flush out the hog pens, a feat the system can accomplish in just four hours. They project that it would cost only $55,000 to install, but still the industry won’t bite.
Barring forced adoption of new technology, environmental justice activists would at least like to see industrial hog operations complying with existing laws. “Even with the relaxed laws as it is, if they were to enforce those, they would have shut down some of these facilities,” Devon explains to me. “Because, for example, if we can do some water sampling and can detect hog waste down a stream of a swine farm, right there, we’re saying, ‘wait a minute, you didn’t keep it on site. You’ve already violated your permit.’ ”
Community members frequently misunderstand the activists’ goals. Many Smithfield employees in the area are distrustful or even aggressive because they can’t understand that the aim is not to shut Smithfield down. Larry tells me about a tense public hearing that required a police escort, and about how someone tried to run Elsie off the road. He says the activists in the area are routinely threatened and harassed. “We try to very rarely go anywhere by ourselves, particularly if we’re out doing [water] sampling,” he says. Sampling can be tricky because they’re not allowed to trespass on company land, so they often try to get as close as they can in a boat, which leaves them more vulnerable than they would be if they had access to a vehicle. Thankfully, nothing has come of these threats. “Or if it has, they’re just poor shots and they just … missed.”
But the activists I speak with all express empathy toward the Smithfield workers. In the 1990s, “when the CAFO technology first came along, they couldn’t afford to be independent,” says Larry. “So they had a choice: they either became a contract grower, or they go out of the business and lost land that may have been in their family for generations.” Under this kind of arrangement (the same used by industrial chicken operations like Tyson Foods and Perdue Chicken), the “contract growers” own the facility and equipment, and Smithfield provides the hogs and the feed.
It’s in their contracts that they have to standardize their facilities, processes, feed, and medications, following Smithfield’s rules. “They tell you how to build your barn, what equipment to put in your barn, they tell you everything,” says Larry. “And you do that, and you’re thinking, ‘Okay, I’m good to go,’ and then they’ll come along and say, ‘Well, we don’t like the way your feeder is working, so we want you to put in a whole new feeder system.’ So the farmer then has to go out and get financing to do that.”
Larry calls it “indentured servitude,” because he says the growers are always “under the thumb” of Smithfield. “If for some reason you do something to make your Smithfield representative upset with you, they’ll just not send you a herd. There’s lot of lame excuses for why they wouldn’t.” Smithfield’s model allows it to place much of the risk of the operation on the growers, since the growers are not paid if something happens to the herd and they are also obligated to pay for maintenance and system upgrades — though as noted on its website, Smithfield itself “assumes the risks associated with the variable costs of feed grains and other inputs as well as fluctuations in the price of hogs in the marketplace.” Larry says many of the growers have told him confidentially that selling out to Smithfield was the biggest mistake they ever made, but they’ll never say it on record.
It’s also challenging to live in a place where the local authorities — not to mention legislators at the state level — all have a vested interest in ensuring Smithfield comes out on top. “When you got a county sheriff that owns a hog farm … who you goin’ call?” says Devon. “We learned when we were at one of our stakeholder’s meetings, that there were certain key people that was employed by Murphy-Brown/Smithfield were on the board of directors at the health department. So you want to call and complain?” The hog industry has been embedded in North Carolina politics for decades at this point, and cronyism still abounds. No matter who was telling me the story, though, it seemed as though one villain in particular popped up again and again. His name is Wendell Murphy.
Murphy, who served in the North Carolina General Assembly from 1983-1992, is a big shot in the hog industry. His venture, Murphy-Brown LLC, is a subsidiary of Smithfield. I have little to add to the News & Observer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Boss Hog” series, which brilliantly detailed Murphy’s work on legislation that protected the hog industry from environmental regulations while providing subsidies and tax-breaks. (North Carolina state law does not prevent lawmakers from working on issues when they have a financially motivated conflict of interest.) The series also exposed Murphy’s illegal contributions to the campaign of Harold “Bull” Hardison, who had a reputation for being industry-friendly.
At the time, North Carolina was perhaps perfectly primed for Murphy’s scheme. America had by that point slapped on its Nicorette patch, and the tobacco industry had begun to shrivel and contract like the bodies of the lung cancer patients shown in the PSAs. North Carolina needed something to fill the void, but it might have chosen any industry to pursue. “Why hogs? Of course: Wendell Murphy,” explains Devon. Through his influence, Murphy perhaps single-handedly determined the fate of North Carolina’s economy.
But, as Elsie adds, “He helped keep all the people in these positions of authority, so that whenever someone comes and complains, they know not to do anything.” Murphy couldn’t have done it without the cooperation of officials in various spheres of influence, up to and including the governor and the General Assembly.
“Our North Carolina General Assembly is, in my opinion, the most crooked and corrupt governmental body that I know of,” says Larry. “For the most part, they are industry-friendly to the point of being, I think, almost criminal in some of the stuff that they’re allowing to happen … And it just keeps getting worse.”
For example, Lily Kuo at Quartz reports that:
The state’s General Assembly has proposed rules that would bar new residents in a neighborhood from filing nuisance lawsuits. Another proposed amendment would require residents who lose their nuisance cases to pay for the legal expenses of the farms sued. The state is getting a little less transparent — as of last year, the state government will no longer disclose how many total complaints have been made against hog farms. Instead, North Carolina only reports those that resulted in notices of violation.
The activists have seen a few political victories. North Carolina instituted a moratorium on new industrial hog farms in 2007. And in the late 1990s, Halifax County organizers, led by Gary Grant and Halifax Environmental Loss Prevention (HELP), saw the passage of the strictest laws in the state, which now regulate lagoons and groundwater monitoring requirements locally. But these activists have been burned so often that distrust, or at least hesitation, is often intrinsic to interactions with outsiders or authorities. They expressed concern, for example, that the independent water-sampling center they used for testing was perhaps not as impartial as it claimed to be. They sometimes wondered whether big-name environmental groups had their interests at heart. And why not? The monster in their closet is a shapeless, many-headed thing. Who can they trust — the government? The bankers and the realtors? Big business? The sheriff’s office (which, as Devon points out, is almost all white)?
Despite all their negative experiences, the activists I speak to seemed eager to trust me. Just in case, Larry introduces me to everyone I meet as a “Greenville lassie,” which I figure is not just small talk. I do not mention that, as a sort of reformed first-generation Southerner, my sense of allegiance to the area is shaky at best. But if ever there were a reason to love this place, all these people who gave me the benefit of the doubt in spite of my white face would be it.
Feces and Urine
If you blindfolded me and parachuted me into eastern North Carolina, I swear I would know that I were home by a million sensory minutiae: the particular birdsongs, the combined smell of whatever weeds and flowers and trees grow in the clay-and-sand soil, the precise percentage of humidity. For this reason, Don Webb’s lakeside property in Stantonsburg, NC, is familiar to me even though I’ve never been here. This is the last stop on my trip, and it’s a necessary one: you just can’t tell the story without Don Webb.
For his wife, Don built a dance hall on this property, where she teaches line dancing, and for himself, his “man cave.” Both are modest, pretty buildings constructed from wood from old barns. The floors are unfinished, but Don tells me that he can adjust the temperature however I like, since he has air conditioning and heat. Don settles into an armchair while we wait for our other guest, Naeema, to arrive. He sips at a diet soda, and I ask him to tell me about himself. Don is an elderly white man who was formerly a hog farmer, but once he realized how his lagoons were affecting his neighbors, he says his guilty conscience led him to sell off the land and get out of the business. Now he’s an activist.
The dance hall and man cave are on five hundred acres of land he bought in the late 1980s, with the intention of developing a recreation center where he could sell fishing rights. There are about a dozen lakes on the property. He and his wife saved their money over the course of many years to buy the land, but shortly after the purchase, Stantonsburg Farms (owned by then-Senator Murphy) moved into the neighborhood, which did a number on the property value. Don asked the Senator not to site the hog farm there, because he feared that it would cause a stench that no vacationer would appreciate. Don lost that battle, and while some groups have still enjoyed his land, the odor has deterred many others. He says he has also experienced periodic fish kills, as well as massive contamination in the wake of Hurricane Floyd. Though he had been working in activism prior to purchasing the land (he founded the Alliance for a Responsible Swine Industry in the late 1980s, and he was even marginally involved with Warren County in the 1970s), his personal conflict with Murphy motivated him to fight even harder.
“If that dam ever busts up there on that hill, it’s goin’ ruin me,” he says. “But who cares about me? I’m just an American. I’m not no billionaire.”
While it’s somewhat difficult to get him to talk about himself, once we’re on the topic of “feces and urine,” as he very deliberately calls it, he gets real fired up, his hands gesturing wildly in the air. In his age, Don has settled comfortably into that quintessentially Southern (and inevitably male) role of the prodigal storyteller. He tells me about the time a local woman, enraged by something he had said about hog farming on the television, came at his car with a shovel. He tells me how he told Jim Hunt, on the steps of the Capitol, that he would go down in history as the great “feces and urine” governor. He tells me how he carted Wendell Murphy all over hog country to meet his neighbors: one whose tuberculosis was exacerbated by the air pollution, others who were devastated because their grandchildren refused to come visit their smelly homes. He tells me how Jesse Helms agreed with him that it was “un-American” to stink up a neighbor’s house. And how Ted Kennedy said so, too.
I can imagine that he has told these same stories hundreds of times. To his good-ol’-boy buddies, over beers and fishing poles. To the next generation of eastern Carolinians (God help them), over vinegar-soaked barbeque. To reporters. To senators.
“Right over here — now I’m giving you the best knowledge I have, because they are very secret — right over here I’ve been told by them there’s six thousand hogs over down there, that’s equivalent to sixty thousand people, and they pump their feces out a hole in the ground, spray it on a field, and off of that farm right over here,” Don says. “I have TV documentation. It has a blue-line stream — you know what that is? That’s a public waters of North Carolina, going right through the middle of the hog farm. We can show you. I have seen it more than twice, but two times I have seen it full — pure purplish yellow, a feces going across the road right on into the Contentnea Creek. And what has my government done about it?” He slaps at his wrist. “‘Don’t do that again.’”
Don has plenty to say about the state government, which he refers to as “bought and paid for.” He talks about high-paid lobbyists, who “dictate more than the citizens who suffer.” It’s easy for them to get in to see their senators, he says, but they don’t want to talk to him. “I was offered money to say certain things, too, and I told them where they could put it,” he says.
He tells me that some have urged the General Assembly to pass laws requiring industrial hog growers to install cameras in the pens, but that this has been unsuccessful. “What’s wrong with somebody filming what goes on in the hog pen, if they’re not doing anything wrong? But they are!” he says. “See if the person sees it with their eyes, they can’t prove it. But that camera will prove it.”
When Naeema finally walks in, he’s still on fire. “The new Attorney General? I want to see what she’s gonna do about it. I’m goin’ to get with her, somehow or other. I want to see if she believes in domestic tranquility for me and this young lady here,” he says, indicating Naeema.
This is a strange pair if ever I’ve met one, but they seem to be the best of friends. Naeema is also from eastern North Carolina, but she moved to Philadelphia in 1966, where she joined the African People’s Party and was “politicized,” as she put it. She got involved in labor movements up north before she felt called to move home fifteen years later and work on human rights activism (she prefers the term “human rights” over “civil rights”) in North Carolina.
“People began to really look at the South and its relationship to capitalism in the U.S. and its relationship to cheap labor,” Naeema says. “And what it all meant in its relationship to slavery. And we began talking about the need to organize the South … it was critical to the liberation of Black people in this country.” Naeema says that companies started relocating to the South because the union laws weren’t as restrictive and the labor was cheaper. Prior to Hurricane Floyd, which served as Naeema’s entrée into environmental justice activism, she worked on labor issues such as this, seeking to protect Black southern workers from being taken advantage of.
Admittedly, I tense when Naeema brings up race. I’m not without my own prejudices, I’m ashamed to say, and a lifetime of conditioning has done its best to teach me that elderly southern white men — especially those from the country — are generally unwilling to engage in such discussions. It’s hard to tell if this is a product of actual negative experiences I’ve had, or whether it’s a pervasive societal expectation that has corrupted my sense of reason (which of course tells me that only a fool would assume an entire demographic shares the same values). In any case, I choose to lean into any potential conflict, pushing Naeema for further information on her work with race issues, and I notice from the corner of my eye that Don is unperturbed, relaxed. I breathe easier. And it’s not long before he himself pipes up to say that, while all kinds of poor people in the area are affected, the African-American community has borne a greater burden than the rest.
Naeema explains that her work has by and large consisted of convincing people to see that “it’s not just an ‘I,’ a ‘my’ problem.” She says, “It’s a systemic problem. And the only way you gonna be able to address that is bringing everybody together, so that you can show the behavior as a pattern, and not just as a single, individual problem. You need to talk to your neighbors.”
Don becomes sentimental over how community organizing has affected his relationships to many of his neighbors (even if others have tried to attack him with a shovel). “It won’t one bit a problem about the Black and white community, because they were working together,” he says. “If I’ve ever seen the Blacks and whites work together, the hog thing, and chickens and turkeys, brought them together. And they became one.”
Don and Naeema reminisce for another hour or so, trying between the two of them to dredge up answers to my questions about which year thus-and-such happened or the name of that guy who came and did that study.
We’ve kept Naeema too long and she’s tired. She’s just been in a car accident and it hurts her to sit for too long. As Don and I walk her to the car, he pulls up his pant leg to show her his own wound. “A five-year-old ran me right over in a golf cart!” he says, and Naeema looks at him with disbelief.
She leans in to give him a parting hug. “I love you, honey,” she says.
“Well, I love you, too,” he says. “You behave yourself.”
“I’ll try,” says Naeema.
Once she drives off, Don takes me to see the inside of the dance hall, which appears to be infested with ants. He takes me on a tour of the photos that line the walls, photos of happy families dancing under his wife’s instruction. He monopolizes my attention for as long as he can, even though I have already been there for hours and he is beginning to repeat himself, trying to say all that he needs to say.
We circle the building, and I take some pictures of an American flag, some antique farming tools, a tractor, all the while fully aware of how trite these images are. Southern kitsch has never really seemed appealing, and yet I find myself embarrassed at the false nostalgia it unexpectedly evokes in me now. My love for North Carolina is tentative, cautious. But there are complexities I can see today that I couldn’t as a child. Momentarily moved by all this togetherness, I wonder if, after having met these people, I might be capable of loving this place just a little more freely, just a little less ambiguously.
When we reach my car, Don asks me how I’m going to get back to Greenville, where I’m staying at my parents’ house. Everyone around here seems to express this same peculiar interest in what highways I choose and why. I tell him I had planned to take whatever route the GPS told me to, and Don is surprised and maybe a bit disappointed that I don’t know my way around better. We part ways.
Top photo: Humane Society of the United States
All other photos courtesy of the author