A Decade Ago, Massive Hog Waste Spill Inspired Industry Reforms

It's been 10 years since a lagoon broke at Oceanview Farm near Richlands, spewing millions of gallons of hog waste that eventually ran into the New River. Ten years, and the memories are still alive for those who were here. It was a chaotic time that impacted nearly every aspect of the community -- set neighbor against neighbor and altered the business landscape for one of the state's most promising industries.

It's been 10 years since a lagoon broke at Oceanview Farm near Richlands, spewing millions of gallons of hog waste that eventually ran into the New River.

Ten years, and the memories are still alive for those who were here. It was a chaotic time that impacted nearly every aspect of the community -- set neighbor against neighbor and altered the business landscape for one of the state's most promising industries.

One look at Tom Mattison and you know he's quite a character. A large black shark tooth dangles around his neck on a golden chain and an ornate belt buckle proudly declares his first name. His camouflaged hat says 'RIVERKEEPER' on it, and it's stuck with a number of pins: an American flag, a golden fish hook and others.

Mattison remembers those days after the spill, as a plume of effluent worked its way down the river, killing fish and rendering the water off-limits for people.

"It was a trying time because everyone and their brother was going broke," he said. "If you caught a fish, you wouldn't dare eat it. The fishermen suffered, marinas suffered greatly, the military suffered because they couldn't train in the river."

Mattison, who now owns his own waste management company, became a household name in Onslow County in the days following the June 21, 1995, Oceanview disaster, when about 22 million gallons of hog waste broke through the wall of an 8-acre lagoon, crashed across a road, through farmers' fields and into the tributaries of the New River. It was Mattison who started the New River Foundation in late July 1995.

Looking back, Mattison said he's surprised he was able to form a group that is still alive and effective today. With the help of his daughters, he wrote the bylaws, got the foundation approved by the state and registered as an official nonprofit organization. Mattison became the foundation's first president and in 1999, it's first Riverkeeper.

"I didn't have any idea what I was doing," he said. "But I did it without an attorney, mind you. And that was amazing."

He remembers that first meeting -- just a gaggle of angry citizens with enough willpower to do something about it. Once the foundation was running, it joined with the Alliance for a Responsible Swine Industry in a quest to seek reparations for the environmental disaster and what they perceived of as negligence on the part of the state and the swine industry. Those groups went all over the state to a number of meetings to make sure the voices of the people were heard.

"We were throwing some big rocks in those days," Mattison said. "We had some knock-down, drag-outs. We had meetings all over the state. Every time they allowed you to ask a question, I did. I got their damn attention, that was the main thing."

It's impossible to ignore how riled up Mattison still gets over those days, and the man's evident joy at being in the middle of something so large and important.

"It was wonderfully exciting," he said. "And we got a lot of things out of it that helped tremendously. (New River) was going down hill rapidly, but as a result of Oceanview, we've come a long way on a lot of things since."

As Mattison spoke out, and state officials tested, and citizens lamented their dying river, Misti Lee was there to write it all down. A reporter for the Daily News from 1990 to 1996, Lee covered the majority of the spill and its immediate aftermath.

Out of all the political rhetoric, the legal back-and-forth and the updating environmental regulations, what Lee remembers most is the way the spill affected the community.

"This divided people who were good, decent and easy going to the point that there would be hard feelings," she said. "It was in small communities where everyone got along and loved each other. It caused ill feelings between people who felt they had the right to use their property to make a living and it upset other people who felt they had the right to sit on their front porch and enjoy clean air."

Lee, who grew up in a farming family in Duplin County, said covering swine issues was difficult for her.

"This is the one story, the one issue that I covered that my family was taking heat from it," she said. "They were glad when I moved on to another story. I don't feel regret because it did need to be done, but I did feel bad. The people this affected, they are the most decent and loving people you will ever meet."

But then again, Lee said she could not help but think of the people that were adversely affected by the spill.

"It needed to be done," she said. "I felt like our stories were giving people a voice and helping people. It was helping them get their complaints heard and to get the state to pay attention. It gave those people who had kind of been on the back burner saying 'Look, what can happen,' it finally gave them a voice to be heard.

"When Oceanview broke, finally someone would listen." Lee said it was exciting to cover such an important story that drew the attention of the entire state.

"A lot of people were talking about it, from officials to readers," she said. "It was a big state story and it happened in our back yard. It was exciting to cover a state story that you knew so many people were interested in. There was a lot of energy to the story because we were all going after the same story and were all trying to get it first and do it the best. Because it happened in Onslow County, (The Daily News) really wanted our coverage to be the best."

As a result of Oceanview, the swine industry -- which had been largely unregulated -- was forced to comply with new state laws that included waste management procedures and regular inspections. Lagoons across the state were inspected and assessed.

A state commission -- The Blue Ribbon Study Commission on Animal Waste -- was created by then-Gov. Jim Hunt to study and make recommendations on disposing animal waste. Later, the governor applied a statewide moratorium on hog farms and has promoted an effort to phase out lagoons for newer technologies.

Diana Rashash, the environmental education agent with Onslow County's Agricultural Extension Service, in many ways credits the Oceanview spill for bringing her to Onslow County.

"It basically gave me my job," said Rashash, who began working with Cooperative Extension in early 1996.

Part of Rashash's job is to make sure hog farmers are educated on the ever-changing regulations and how they change from year to year. She said she has earned the farmers trust at this point, but remembers how wary they were when she arrived.

"They were facing new regulations and a new person," she said. "I think some of them were nervous about how I was going to be. I'm sure they were worried I was going to be an environmental terror."

While hog farming has been a big part of the North Carolina agricultural economy for a long time, Rashash said a spill the size of Oceanview made it a hot topic outside the industry.

"It made it much more aware in people's minds," she said. "There was more political awareness. It's always one of those frustrating things when you go to another state and people ask you about it.

"Oceanview brought it more to the forefront of people's minds. It wasn't just odor or trucks going by loaded with animals anymore. It was part of the directing force for some of the current regulations." Rashash said that hog farmers were particularly defensive about Oceanview and that they still are very wary of bad publicity. Attempts to contact hog farmers for this story were not successful.

"I'd say they probably had the typical human reaction," Rashash said. "Anybody who feels their job and industry is being attacked would react that way."

Many of them felt unfairly maligned.

"Suddenly we're the enemy," area swine farmer Ronald Nobles told the Daily News in 1996. "Four or five years ago people were so proud that the state had found an alternative to tobacco. But now, thanks to that incident and thanks to the negative publicity, we are now being portrayed as villains, and we are not that."

But hog farmers have moved on and they are also willing to try new technologies and to work within the regulations, Rashash said. And while the Oceanview spill isn't normally a topic of conversation, it is mentioned sometimes.

"It's not something they come in and start chatting about," she said. "But it gets brought up. This is not exactly an anniversary that swine farmers are proud of. But they do rejoice in the fact that we haven't had another Oceanview."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News