Debate on easing rules for Georgia hog farms

Oglethorpe County hog farmer Jimmy Shealy has done well enough to put five kids through college. He works hard enough to want to do better.

And he is looking ahead enough financially to want more hogs.

“The hog business has been good to us, but it is not a gold mine,” Shealy said Friday, as pork producers and environmentalists squared off on a proposal to ease pollution rules governing Georgia’s hog farms.

“We need economies of scale,” he added, “that would give some people an opportunity to keep their kids interested” in what are often family-owned businesses, he said.

Right now, stricter environmental rules kick in when hog farms exceed 7,500 pigs weighing 55 pounds or more. Hog farmers want that ceiling raised to 12,500 pigs. Members of the state Board of Natural Resources are expected to vote on whether to allow that change in December.

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The move has angered environmentalists, who talk of huge, commercialized swine operations, overflowing waste lagoons, saturated fields sprayed with the leftovers and seepage into rivers, creeks and even local drinking water.

The face-off has left little neutral ground, although it is nowhere near as intense as the late 1990s, when Georgia officials first put the hog limits in place. Fresh on the minds of officials then was the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Floyd on neighboring hog farms in North Carolina, when lagoons and spray fields overflowed with liquid manure and overwhelmed the coastal plain.

The curbs placed on Georgia hog farms have largely done their part in controlling the farms’ growth while balancing environmental concerns.

Right now, any farm that wanted to exceed the 7,500-hog limit would have to use airtight waste lagoons if it wanted to keep it for fertilizer. And the waste would have to be injected into fields underground, not sprayed over them. The rules ban such a farm from operating in a 100-year floodplain, and sets strict requirements limiting how close it can be to bodies of water.

These are the rules that would go into place for farms with more than 12,500 hogs if the Natural Resources board approves the change.

Supporters of rolling back the regulations say they have impeded the family farms that dominate the industry here. Fewer than a dozen farms now hold permits allowing them between 2,500 and 7,500 hogs. There are none bigger.

Those that want to expand would do so to allow for only “modest growth in their operations,” said Jeffrey Harvey of the Georgia Farm Bureau, which is among groups including the Georgia Agribusiness Council and the Georgia Pork Producers backing the change. “We do not think this rule will accelerate pork production in this state.”

Supporters of the change say there is no scientific reason for treating hog farms differently from other livestock farms. The larger farms would still be subject to strict rules, training and inspections.

But critics see a more sinister picture, which they voiced at the one and only public hearing on a proposal held Friday by state officials.

“We’re talking about setting up a system of growing pork on a concrete slab and trying to get rid of a huge amount of waste,” said Gordon Rogers, executive director of the Flint Riverkeeper environmental group.

The rules adopted in 1999 were meant to prevent waste from being washed into streams and rivers — exactly what those opposed to the plan fear now.

A coalition of environmental groups including the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Georgia River Network and the Sierra Club argue that changing the rules would increase the risk of manure leaking into Georgia’s water.

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