Pink Water & Pigs: Environmental Justice for Native Americans in North Carolina

Photo by Jenny Poole on flickr.com

With its roots founded in the 1960s, the concept of environmental justice, specifically, that ecological hazards have a disproportionately negative impact on minority groups of color and the poor is not unfamiliar to those of us living in the United States. Despite increased public awareness about these issues, however, many communities still remain exposed to ongoing health risks due to their environment. And if one looks more closely, it is easy to recognize that specific minority groups are still the ones that are suffering.

One group in particular that is deeply affected by environmental racism are our country’s native people. A fraction of the injustices suffered by Native Americans is recounted in Donald Grinde and Bruce Johansen’s book Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples. On Native American reservations in Utah, for example, processes that determine the radiation exposure to workers have historically been far removed from those living there, those who might suffer from exposure. Lied to and uneducated about the risks of building nuclear plants on and adjacent to their reservations by the plant operators, many of Utah’s Native Americans worked the unventilated mines, breathing in radon, and handling radioactive rock with their bare hands from the 1940’s and into the 1970’s. Now, many still find their homes in radioactive fallout zones, or have a higher potential to contract various kinds of cancer by hunting and eating animals affected by radiation.

Navajo miners. (http://swes.cals.arizona.edu/environmental_writing/stories/fall%202013/billy%20.html)

The Native Americans of Utah are not alone in their struggle against environmental injustice. Native Americans in Washington, who relied heavily on the yearly salmon run, found their forest logged and rivers dammed, and then were placed under strict fishing regulations and arrested from as early as 1913 until the late 1970’s. In 1981, New York state’s Akwesasne tribe had it confirmed in a study that its water and food supply had been subject to unheard of levels of pollution when large companies, including General Motors, began dumping waste less than a thousand yards from their homes a decade earlier.

This pattern continues to exist today. In the deeply agrarian Southern United States, however, environmental injustice frequently stems from an agricultural source. The ecological effects of North Carolina’s pig farms are a paradigm of this.

In July of 2016, the Waterkeeper Alliance reported that North Carolina’s farm animal operations produced over 10 billion gallons of waste per year, and the majority of this came from the pork industry. This is partially due to the fact that hogs can produce two to five times as much waste as humans, and partially because the $8 billion hog industry in North Carolina is booming, with over 2,100 farms. In large-scale pork operations, the hogs themselves pose little issue to nearby residents, as they are contained in large, cement-based barns. How farmers manage their excessive waste, however, deeply impacts nearby residents’ ways of life.

North Carolina CAFO/Confined Animal Feeding Operation (photo courtesy of Miriam Songster, songster.net)

When the pigs defecate in their cement barns, the urine and fecal matter passes through iron grates in the floor, slides into a tank, and gets pumped into a “lagoon.” These lagoons are open-air cesspools that can reach the size of a football field and sit stinking and swirling with pink water, the coloration a result of the naturally occurring bacteria, which are the only treatment the waste gets.

Not only do these lagoons produce a terrible, cloying stench that might linger for days in the heat and lower the property values of nearby homes, but they are also an environmental hazard. In North Carolina, where the water table is high, waste runs off the ponds and into the local water supply. Closely located properties are also occasionally coated with mists of fecal waste as the pig operations spray the mixture onto their fields.

Untreated hog waste being sprayed on a North Carolina field. (Photo by Rick Dove, doveimaging.com)

The majority of reporting has focused on the disproportionate exposure of black Americans to the negative effects of the pig farms in North Carolina, or those in the all-encompassing term “people of color.” UNC’s Department of Epidemiology has shown that Native Americans surpass black and Hispanic Americans in that they are 2.18 times more likely to live within three miles of a hog farm (black and Hispanic Americans being 1.54 and 1.39 times, respectively.) This environmental racism is not new. In 2008, in an article published in the American Journal of Public Health, a study produced came to conclusions that almost exactly mirror the findings of 2016. While this information has been known for years, the purchase of a large industrial hog complex, Smithfield Farms, by the Chinese WH Group in 2013 has refocused attention onto the issue. This buyout is not only interesting to examine the increasingly dominant role of China in the United State’s pork markets, but it provides the opportunity to draw attention to the environmental racism suffered specifically by Native Americans.

Pigs in stalls. (Source: https://lonelyspore.com/)

When reading about the environmental racism surrounding pig farms, Native Americans are rarely mentioned, if it all. Why is there such neglect of this problem?

In an article published in the journal Society & Natural Resources, Jamie Vickery and Lori M. Hunter attempt to explore explain the marginal place of Native Americans in studies of environmental racism. They argue that the approach to studying and pursuing environmental justice for Native American communities has to be adapted. This is because the unique political and cultural dynamics of Native American communities, particularly Native American reservations, affects the specific environmental demands on the community.

Conducting environmental health research in low-income and minority communities also has it difficulties, as is examined by Wing et. al. These groups might distrust researchers who come from institutions that profit off discriminatory practices and economic or racial inequalities, and this lack of trust might pose a huge disincentive to the researcher who now must establish relationships to learn from the community. Wing et. al. also points out that researchers and people of the community might face harassment or loss of funding if the research shows evidence of discrimination.

Despite these difficulties, however, it is important to raise awareness for incommensurate suffering of Native Americans through this form environmental racism. The waste treatment at these pig farms not only hurts the local wildlife — polluting the local water supply and afflicting native fish with listeria, saturating the soil with bacteria associated with pig fecal matter — but it prevents Native Americans from living. Until the way pork operations manage their waste changes, those who live by deal with the consequences: they must breathe the nauseating smell of the pork farms, they must live in homes and drive in cars literally coated in pig dung, they are forced to fear for their own health and the health of their families.

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