For years, coastal hog farms have been under fire from environmentalists who say they impact the environment and interrupt daily life for coastal residents.
The North Carolina Pork Council said a new program taking place on some Duplin County hog farms may be a solution to some of these problems.
The farms are often referred to as factory farms, but the technical term is CAFO, or concentrated animal feeding operation.
Each operation houses thousands of hogs at a time.
"Eastern North Carolina has the highest concentration of hogs in the United States,” said Rick Dove, senior adviser for Neuse Riverkeepers. “We're number two in production with about 9 million."
The farmers who run these CAFOS are under contract with big companies like Smithfield and Murphy Brown.
They don't own the animals, but they are responsible for raising them, growing them to full size as quickly as possible and then sending them out to be turned into meat.
The farmers are also responsible for the waste the pigs produce.
"All of the fecal waste produced by all of the people every day in the states of North Carolina, California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and North Dakota —if you combine the poultry CAFOS along with the swine CAFOs that we have in eastern North Carolina, that's how much fecal waste they're producing each and every day,” said Rick Dove, senior adviser with Neuse Riverkeepers.
The waste is collected in lagoons connected to the barns and is sprayed onto the farmer's fields as fertilizer.
The problem is that the bacteria from hog waste creates chemicals like nitrogen and ammonia.
The plants can't take in all these chemicals and the excess runs off into local waterways when it rains.
"If you have an open cut, don't go swim in it,” said Katy Langley, Neuse riverkeeper. “If you see a bunch of dead fish floating around, don't swim in it and call me. And also don't drink it."
Some Duplin County hog farmers are hoping to curb this problem by working with consulting firm Cavanaugh and Associates to cover the lagoons and capture the methane gas within them to convert it into reusable energy.
Biogas engineer Gus Simmons said the program is good for the environment.
"It's absolutely a positive for the environment,” said Simmons. “So we are recovering the organic carbon that's in the manure and the liquids that has historically been not utilized to its fullest and most beneficial potential. This process allows us to increase the degree of recycling the manure resources for the farm."
But Langely said it doesn't solve the problem.
"The nitrogen is not being what's called scrubbed,” said Langley. “It's not being cleaned. So we're still getting the same amount of nitrogen released, and we're still getting the same amount of pollution."
Simmons said the methane gas produced can power about a thousand homes per year with high-quality fuel.
"What we find continuously is the gas is very, very dry,” said Simmons. “There's no moisture in it, and it's got a very high purity of methane. We're producing gas that's a greater composition of methane than the natural gas that's already in the pipeline."
But the remaining waste is still returned to farmers and sprayed on fields.
The farmers are supposed to avoid spraying fields when it is raining or supposed to rain.
But 9 On Your Side captured footage from the air of one farm spraying the fields as the rain was coming down.
"The Department of Ag's soil and water conservation department do a yearly inspection,” said Langley. “And that's it. The facilities get the notification 'We're coming on this date. We're going to do our inspection.' And that gives them plenty of time to clean up."
A statement from the North Carolina Pork Council reads:
"Hog farms in North Carolina are highly regulated by the state and farmers must hold permits that prohibit any runoff from the farms. Hog farms use manure as a natural fertilizer that helps grow healthy crops using a process that is scientifically calculated to provide nutrients for the soil in an environmentally conscious manner."