Imagine living near an open-air pool containing thousands of gallons of hog excrement, the acrid stench from which is so overwhelming that it leads to chronic burning eyes, coughs, sore throats and diarrhea. Then imagine that the noxious stuff is sprayed on fields near your home, where it soaks into the water table and contaminates your drinking well.

That's the situation that many residents of eastern North Carolina face today -- but they're demanding change.

With a temporary state moratorium on hog waste lagoons and sprayfields set to end in September, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network rallied at the legislature yesterday to call for making the ban permanent. NCEJN is also asking lawmakers to adopt an incentive-based program to implement cleaner waste technologies and to create a community well-water mitigation program for people who can no longer drink from their wells due to hog waste contamination.

"It was the N.C. Legislature who legalized this type of waste technology which invaded the communities of eastern North Carolina with a vengeance in the early 1990s, and therefore the state legislators have played a major role in causing increased health and environmental disparities on the citizens of eastern North Carolina," says NCEJN Chair Gary Grant.

As Grant points out, North Carolina's hog population exploded in the 1990s, growing from about 2.6 million hogs in 1988 to more than 8 million in 1997, according to Duke University researchers. Today North Carolina is the second-largest hog producer in the nation after Iowa.

Ironically enough, the rapid growth in the hog population coincided with a sharp decline in the number of hog farms, as the industry became increasingly dominated by corporate giants. Between 1986 and 2000, the number of hog farms in North Carolina dropped from 15,000 to 3,600.

The industry's consolidation meant that the hog population grew increasingly concentrated on what are known as confined animal feed operations -- and in turn these CAFOs have been concentrated in poor, minority communities. A 1999 study by Dr. Steve Wing, an epidemiologist with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, analyzed the location of more than 2,500 intensive hog operations and found that they were seven times more likely to be located in the poorest census blocks, and five times more likely in be located in areas with a high proportion of minorities. According to the study's abstract:

The excess of hog operations is greatest in areas with both high poverty and high percentage nonwhites. Operations run by corporate integrators are more concentrated in poor and nonwhite areas than are operations run by independent growers. ... Disproportionate impacts of intensive hog production on people of color and on the poor may impede improvements in economic and environmental conditions that are needed to address public health in areas which have high disease rates and low access to medical care as compared to other areas of the state.

Environmental justice advocates in North Carolina are frustrated that in the decade since the moratorium was imposed the state hasn't required hog producers to do anything more than finance a study of alternative waste management systems. A report on that study released last year suggested several alternatives to open-air lagoons but concluded that they would cost too much to implement.

And now instead of looking for ways to do away with waste lagoons, the hog industry is seeking ways to further profit from them. This week, the N.C. Pork Council asked lawmakers to create a pilot program to test the practicality of producing electricity with methane gas emitted by the lagoons, the Associated Press reports. While the proposal has the backing of eastern North Carolina utility giant Progress Energy, it wouldn't reduce lagoon pollution or address related health problems, Wing notes.

In the meantime, state Rep. Carolyn Justice, a Democrat who represents eastern North Carolina's Pender County, says she plans to introduce legislation that would permanently ban hog lagoons and gradually replace existing ones with cleaner systems supported by government incentives. The measure would also provide help to well owners whose water has been poisoned by lagoons. Other legislation has been introduced that would simply extend the existing moratorium for three years.

But a mere extension will not satisfy the NCEJN.

"The only way to help restore the health of the people and communities and the environment is to ban this type of waste disposal permanently," says Grant.