‘It’s wrong to stink up other people’s lives’: fighting the manure lagoons of North Carolina

Image of Elsie Herring and her dog

Elsie Herring and her dog, Midnight, at her home which has been in her family for generations. Photograph: Justin Cook for the Guardian

Two poles that once hoisted a clothes line stand rusting and unused in Elsie Herring’s back garden in eastern North Carolina. Herring lives next door to a field where pig manure is sprayed and the drifting faecal matter wasn’t kind to her drying clothes.

“The clothes would stink so you’d wash them again and again until they fell apart,” said Herring, whose family has lived in Wallace since her grandfather, a freed slave, purchased land in the 1890s.

“You stand outside and it feels like it’s raining but then you realise it isn’t rain. It’s animal waste. It takes your breath away. You start gagging, coughing, your pulse increases. All you can do is run for cover.”

For years here in North Carolina – the second largest pork-producing state in the US – the pigs have been outstripping the humans. They currently number around 38 to one in Duplin county, with the impact, say local groups, falling disproportionately heavily on African-Americans, Latinos and native Americans. But in the last few weeks, two court decisions may have tipped momentum in a new direction, awarding compensation and bringing in new penalties for polluters.

The pig farms of North Carolina produce around 10bn gallons of faeces a year, which is more than the volume of waste flushed down toilets by the human population of Germany. The waste falls underneath slatted floorboards and is discharged into murky lagoons that sit beside the barns. There are around 4,000 of these cesspools in North Carolina. 05-24-18

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