Our thoughts


By Simon Gonzalez

On Tuesday, the Raleigh-based Civitas Center for Law and Freedom announced the New Hanover County School Board joined a suit filed against the North Carolina Attorney General asking that settlement money be distributed to public schools.

Adequate funding is a perpetual struggle, so it’s understandable that county school officials are enticed by the thought of a potential windfall. But in this case, the local board is on the wrong side.

The lawsuit revolves around money paid to the state by Smithfield Foods Inc. under a deal dating back to 2000. Smithfield manages hog farms throughout the Cape Fear River basin, and hogs create three times the amount of excrement humans do. Waste from the facilities spilled into waterways during Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The following year the Smithfield Agreement required the company to clean up its farms and pay $1 a hog each year to the state, capped at $2 million a year.

The settlement called for an initial $17.1 million for research into better ways to treat waste. Since 2014, the state has collected an additional $5.7 million. The Civitas suit alleges the money “was illegally funneled to special interest groups.”

The special interests in question? Environmental groups. You know, the folks dedicated to things like keeping our rivers and waterways clean from pollutants like hog waste.

The case hinges on a legal definition. Is the money paid by Smithfield under the agreement a settlement or a fine? The state constitution specifies fines for legal violations must be used for public schools.

Legal nuances aside, the money is going where it belongs, to groups not working for a special interest but for the common interest.

Smithfield’s hog farms meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO. In essence, they are factory farms that crowd a lot of animals into a small space.

The Waterkeeper Alliance reports there are more CAFOs concentrated east of I-95 than anywhere else on Earth. Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper, says there are 10 million hogs this side of the interstate, mostly in Duplin and Sampson Counties. There are even more turkeys and chickens.

All those animals produce tons of waste, which goes into lagoons or is sprayed directly onto fields, untreated. When it’s more than the landscape can absorb, it runs off into waterways.

Burdette has led or joined efforts to take on heavyweights Titan American and Duke Energy, and won. Titan abandoned plans to build a cement plant in Castle Hayne, and Duke is closing and cleaning up coal ash plants locally and around the state. But Burdette calls CAFOs a bigger problem than Titan or Duke, and “a much tougher nut to crack.”

The Waterkeeper Alliance, a group representing more than 300 waterkeepers around the world, called out the CAFOs in 2015 with a billboard campaign that included the slogan “Raise a Stink: Stop Industrial Swine Pollution.”

The response came in the form of television ads stating the hog farms were being unfairly targeted, that they have a strong environmental record, and are important to the state’s economy, the latter of which is undeniable.

The battle lines were drawn. On one side, environmentalists claiming to have evidence of illegal and improper disposal of waste. On the other, farmers claiming they are working hard to meet the regulations.

Rather than engage in a war of words, Burdette tested the waters. He took nine water samples from the Black River, a tributary of the Cape Fear, and dropped them off at University of North Carolina Wilmington for testing. All showed high levels of fecal coliform bacteria and other contaminants.

If there are high levels of animal waste in our waterways, arguments about whether the farms are owned by families or corporations and whether they are regulated and to what degree become moot.

It benefits all of us to keep pollutants out of the Cape Fear and its tributaries, and that’s where environmental groups come in.

There’s a nice symmetry if the protectors are receiving a little of their funding from the polluters. So sorry, school board. It would be great if you receive a windfall from somewhere, but this money is going to the right place.

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