Researchers have identified innovative methods of treating the hog manure produced by more than 10 million hogs in North Carolina, but the hard part is paying for it. Pork industry leaders, scientists and environmentalists are far apart on whether the new methods are financially feasible alternatives to controlling odors in the state’s lagoon.

The rift remains despite a five-year, $17.3 million effort to find alternative methods of treating hog manure. Smithfield Foods and Premium Standard Farms provided the research money as part of an agreement with the state in 2000 to find new treatment technologies for the nation’s second largest pork producer.

Once North CarolinaStateUniversity researchers identified those treatment methods, the agreement between the pork producers and the state required the companies to switch to the new disposal system within three years.

Five years later, researchers have identified five disposal technologies as more environmentally friendly than the existing method, says Mike Williams, an N.C.State professor overseeing the project.

The sticking point is whether any of the systems will prove financially viable. At this point, none appears to be, notes Williams. "The key question becomes, will the technologies be able to get their costs down?" he says.

Under the agreement, the systems must be economically feasible for the state to require Smithfield and PSF to adopt them. So far, the technologies appear to cost more than two to five times as much as the current lagoon and land application methods.

Williams is giving more time to the developers of two technologies so they can refine their processes and try to cut costs.

SuperSoils is the first system developed by Super Soils Systems USA. It involves flushing manure from the barns into tanks, separating solids and liquids. The solids are used as fertilizer. The liquids are processed to remove nitrogen and phosphorus.

The second system features an enclosed steel container that removes oxygen and uses microorganisms over 14 to 21 days to convert solid manure into methane and carbon dioxide. Those gases can then be used to generate electricity.

Even the subject of how to define economically feasible stirs debate.

The pork companies acknowledged when they signed the pact that the new technologies might cost more than existing disposal methods, and that the higher cost might be deemed economically feasible.

An economic advisory panel deadlocked on a definition of "feasible" and produced two reports this month — one written by the majority of members and the other by pork interests.

The majority endorsed the concept that producers must accept at least some increased cost of doing business — even it means that the number of hogs in the state shrinks by 12 percent.

In their dissenting opinion, the producers took the position that economic feasibility means no increased cost of doing business.

Bart Ellis, a vice president at Smithfield Foods and member of the NCSU project advisory committee, says the core question was competitiveness with other states.

One producer who raises hogs under contract for Smithfield Foods estimates the cost of the new technology would increase his operating costs by $260,000 a year. He says that his operation didn't have that kind of annual profit and that the cost would put him out of business.

After five years, is North Carolina any closer to getting rid of open-air hog lagoons?

Williams says it was unrealistic to expect a rapid conversion to a new disposal technology, even if he decides in the summer that one or more meets both environmental and financial requirements. "A reasonable time frame would be over a decade," he says.

Getting new technologies authorized by state environmental authorities, building them and training producers is a large task.

RaleighNews and Observer