Anxious to help North Carolina's hog industry, government officials have not asked hard questions about effects on the environment or on public health. Those mistakes must be corrected.
For an example of an industry whose fortunes have been helped along by political influence, it would be hard to beat North Carolina's pork-producing business. Many of the state's powers-that-be either have a direct interest in the hog industry or are beholden to it for political contributions.
The ties between elected officials and the hog business might not be so bad if the industry consistently acted in ways that benefited the general public. However, as The N&O's just-published "Boss Hog" series has shown, what's best for pork producers is not always what's best for everyone else. Meanwhile, officials consistently have given the industry the benefit of the doubt.
It's understandable why they would see the growth of factory hog farming as an economic plus for Eastern North Carolina now that tobacco is no longer so golden.
But as the giant farms have spread across the coastal plain, state leaders have been too busy cheering to ask whether the environment is being degraded or public health put at risk. Instead, they seem to have asked the industry one question only: "What can we do to help you?"
Consequently, environmental regulations are among the loosest in the nation. For instance, the state doesn't require impermeable liners on all waste treatment pits, or lagoons, despite research showing the possibility of pollution leakage that may contaminate wells.
Legislative kowtowing to the industry is why local governments are powerless to control hog farms through zoning. It's also why a 1993 measure to increase government oversight was watered down to set up a task force to study hog odors instead. (Admittedly, this is an important topic, especially to those Down East whose lives have been disrupted by the stench.)
In its pork-promoting frenzy, the state approved a slaughterhouse on the Cape Fear River without a detailed study of how the river would be affected by the plant's discharges. Even now, Governor Hunt and Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham are trying to lure a processor to Duplin County over some residents' protests.
The General Assembly can and should lessen the influence of special interests like hog producers by reforming campaign finance laws. It also needs to adopt clear ethics rules to guide legislators on conflicts of interest. And of course it needs to take corrective action on zoning, legal rights for contract farmers, odor control and disposal of animal wastes.
The point should not be to ruin the industry, which is important to the state's economy, but to better shield the public from its adverse consequences. That's only fair. On the state level, after all, the public supports the business through tax breaks. On the federal level, North Carolina's junior senator, Lauch Faircloth (who has invested heavily in hogs) is among those seeking subsidies for overseas sales.
The public has every right to draw the line at subsidizing the industry by sacrificing Eastern North Carolina's environment as well.