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Excerpt: 'Animal Factory'

Animal Factory


The first time Rick Dove saw a hog factory, it was from a thousand feet up in the air. Finally, the carnage he had witnessed on the ground began to make some sense.

The fifty-three-year-old retired marine JAG and grizzled Vietnam vet was embarking on a new mission, perhaps the most important mission in his life. The flight he took that muggy afternoon over the coastal plains of North Carolina would change everything. Rick would finally understand what was killing the river. His river, a river called the Neuse.

Rick and his family had lived for years near the broad, muddy mouth of the river. Their home was built on the Neuse — the river was the family's backyard pool. The Neuse (pronounced "noose") sprouts from a reservoir below Durham and, 275 miles to the southeast, discharges its contents into the cloudy waters of Pamlico Sound.

With his steely gaze, silver hair, broad face, and sturdy frame, Rick looked every bit the retired Marine Corps prosecutor, out hunting down prey.

On this warm day in 1993, Rick had paid two hundred dollars for a bird's-eye view of the river, hoping it might reveal the secret of what was mak ing the water so sick and killing fish by the millions. He had the mandate; the Riverkeeper Alliance had recently licensed Rick to serve as the 'Riverkeeper' of the Neuse. He had since logged hundreds of hours plowing the brackish waters in his converted fishing boat, the Lonesome Dove, searching for illegal runoff from factories, sewers, and farms along the banks. He had found some violations, but nothing to explain the massacre of marine life ravishing this sleepy corner of North Carolina.

Something was lurking out there along the waterway. Rick was certain of it. Something had emerged in the last few years, something sinister and foul. Rick had vowed not to rest until he found out what it was — and put an end to it.

The most appalling fish kill had been in September of 1991. Typically, early fall marks the largest migration of the menhaden, a small, tender-fleshed silvery fish with a line of black dots along its flank. Menhaden lay their larvae in the open ocean, which are then washed into the Neuse Estuary, where the fish hatch. From there, young menhaden migrate up to the river basin's shady creeks and backwaters, where they spend the next several months feeding and growing. Most reassemble in September to swim back out to sea, where they live, spawn, and die. For small fry, they are unfathomably fertile: One mature female can produce over 350,000 offspring.

In 1991, the menhaden were running in numbers that Rick had never seen before. The water grew black with fish as they emerged from their bogs and creeks to gather in the middle of the wide estuary formed by the Neuse. From there, they were genetically wired to swim out to sea. But very few of them made it that year.

Rick first noticed a smattering of dead fish along the riverbanks in the weeks leading up to the run, but nothing too serious. Within the first two days after the fish began migrating, however, the kill was on in full force. Rick and his neighbors woke up one morning to the stench of hundreds of millions of dead menhaden lining the banks for miles. In the following days, bass, stripers, mullets, crabs, and shrimp also turned up dead. They were all pocked with round red sores, as though some specter had sucked the lifeblood from their flesh. Locals puzzled over how to deal with the carnage, but within days most of the rotting flesh had dissolved back into the water.

State inspectors rushed to the scene and ordered a battery of tests. They expected to find that oxygen levels in the river water had been depleted, which is usually caused by a large algal bloom — the usual explanation for fish kills and 'dead zones.' But oxygen levels were normal; something else had wiped out a billion fish at once. The largest fish kill ever recorded on an American river remained a mystery.

One evening soon after the kill, Rick went out to the Neuse with his teen-age son, Todd. Together, they sat down on a riverbank, covering their noses against the stench. The river had meant the world to this family. It had given them years of fresh crab and fish. It had provided clean, healthy water for swimming and sailing. Rick sighed and put his arm on his son's shoulder. The hardened marine fought back a tear.

'Everything we loved about this place,' Rick said, 'it's all over.' Inside, he was seething. This old marine had a killer to hunt down; he just wasn't sure where to look.

A few months later, the New Bern fish kill of '91 was little more than a bad memory for most people, the more quickly forgotten, the better. But not for Rick Dove. Over the next two years, he would work closely with local scientists, and, eventually, they would finger the killer: a microscopic organism with the bizarrely happy-sounding name of Pfiesteria. This deadly dinoflagellate, Rick was learning, had caused those appalling open sores on the fish.

But this explanation solved only half the murder mystery. Rick still wanted to know why what some called the 'cell from hell' was appearing in numbers large enough to kill a billion fish. Why was it appearing now? And why was it in the Neuse?

The waters of the river would not relinquish the answer, so Rick decided to extend his investigation to the skies. On this first of several hundred sorties, Rick had asked the pilot to fly upstream all the way to Raleigh, the state capital. Outfitted with a high-tech camera and telephoto lens, Rick snapped images of factories, sewage plants, and housing tracts that lined the river. Rick had quickly become an amateur expert in environmental forensics, and he was looking for possible discharges of pollutants — especially nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which can feed and sustain deadly outbreaks of parasites such as Pfiesteria. But nothing he had seen so far would explain dramatic changes in nutrient levels.

Frustrated but hardly willing to give up, Rick asked the pilot to head back downriver toward New Bern — a historically charming old fishing and timber town dating back to colonial times. One of the oldest settlements in North America, wonderfully preserved New Bern is perched on a sharp elbow of land where the Neuse and Trent rivers merge.

When they reached New Bern, Rick had the pilot head west, up the Trent River. Perhaps something had been built along it, he thought, that was dumping nutrient-laden matter into the water. They headed over neighboring Jones County.

Soon, several large dark ponds of water began to dot the misty green landscape below. They were of differing colors and various angular shapes. Some were black, some brown, and many a shocking shade of magenta, as though they had been filled with Pepto-Bismol. The ponds lay in random patterns across a vast swath of land, like massive swimming pools in a subdivision for giants.

'What are those?' Rick asked the pilot over the audio system. 'Some sort of fishponds? Maybe catfish or tilapia farms?'

'No idea,' the pilot crackled back through Rick's headphones.

The peculiar ponds were adjoined by long, narrow metallic buildings that stretched a hundred yards or so in rows of two to eight or more buildings. As they flew farther west, the weird-looking "farms" became more concentrated. Even through the haze, Rick could count one hundred or more ponds within his field of vision.

Then the smell hit them.

Noxious gases were infiltrating the aircraft, still potent after traveling upward through a thousand feet of sky. Rick gagged. Whatever was living — or dying — down there, it sure as hell wasn't fish.

They continued their northwesterly route, passing into Duplin and Sampson counties, among the poorest and most rural in the state. Now the strange longhouses and their ponds filled the landscape in unending succession. One after another after another. Rick continued to snap photos. The farms — or whatever they were — were packed so tightly together that many were wedged in between creeks, canals, and wetlands. Most of that water would find its way into the Neuse, Rick knew. He also noticed big spraying devices — giant sprinklers — on fields surrounding the farms. They were spewing reddish-brown liquid into the air and onto the soil. Some of the spray was caught by the wind and carried aloft as mist; much of it pooled into rivulets on the ground and ran off into nearby waterways. In some areas, sprinklers were spraying brownish water directly into streams.

The wetlands and waterways were choked with green, yellow, and even orange algae. Rick was sickened by the sight of it. 'This is what hell must look like,' he said to the pilot. 'Let's heave back to New Bern. I've seen enough.'

The next morning, Rick called his friend Al Hodge, who worked at the state's Division of Water Quality. Rick described what he'd seen from the plane.

'So,' he said flatly. 'What am I looking at?'

'Pig farms,' Al said. The ponds were actually waste 'lagoons,' he explained, and the sprinklers part of a 'sprayfield' in which liquefied pig waste from the lagoon is distributed onto crops — usually Bermuda grass, hay, or corn — that absorb the nutrients.

'Pig farms?' Rick laughed. 'If those are pig farms, then there are millions and millions of pigs living right there in Duplin and Sampson counties.'

'There might be, Rick. We just don't know.'

'But millions? What would that do to the environment? What about all that surrounding water?'

'We don't know, because we don't even know how many pig farms there are. We don't know where they are. We just have no control over any of it.'

Rick was stunned. 'Well, who the hell can tell me where these things are located, and what they're doing to the river?'

'The Department of Ag,' Al said, 'in Raleigh. But trust me, we've asked them for that information time and again. They won't share it with us. It's some kind of state secret. All they say is to stop breathing down their necks.'

Now Rick was steaming mad. But at least the mystery of the Neuse was beginning to unfurl: Pig poop has nutrients; nutrients feed Pfiesteria outbreaks. Pfiesteria kills fish. Rick smiled, just slightly. He had his suspect. It was time to start prosecuting his case.

From Animal Factory by David Kirby. Copyright 2010 by David Kirby. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.

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