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Visiting the Outer Banks of North Carolina

Last week I returned to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for the first time in 19 years, having made my first visit 30 years ago.

The OBX, as they are called, are a chain of barrier islands, some hardly more than sand bars, on the coast of southeastern Virginia and North Carolina.  As the crow flies, only the Atlantic Ocean exists between the OBX and Africa.

I spent a week on Ocracoke Island with my family.

Ocracoke 30 years ago had an older-world charm that was starting to disappear even then as tourism started to pick up.  Today vestiges of that charm remain, as tourism has become the cornerstone of Ocracoke’s economy, having displaced fishing (and before that piracy).  Old-timers can remember a time when there was no police station or jail on the island. Alas, this is no longer the case.

I’m not however a believer in things “ye olde” for their own sake.  Most of us have to earn our supper, and Ocracokers are no exception.  Fewer than a thousand live on the island permanently, and if tourism is their way to put food on the table, then tourism it has to be.

Ocracoke is a national bird sanctuary, so building on its beaches is prohibited.  Also prohibited are fast-food concessions associated with national and international chains that are a blight on so many seaside towns.

A considerable part of Ocracoke’s appeal for me is the diversity of its residents and visitors.  Far from being a swank tourist destination with marinas for super-yachts, gated communities with their McMansions, and manicured golf resorts; or more demotic destinations with tower-block condos, amusement arcades, fast-food joints, and so on; Ocracoke retains an aura of the quotidian:  yes, there are tourists like me, but also beach bums and surfer dudes, good ol’ boy fishermen, grizzled locals, and hipster kids doing summer-vacation jobs.  According to the 2010 Census,Hispanics or Latinos were 19.1% of the population.  At a café a current-model Range Rover will be parked alongside an ancient truck.

Ocracoke, however, faces two longer-term threats, namely, rising sea levels and increasingly severe hurricanes, and Trump’s crass decision to allow offshore oil drilling on the US’s eastern shoreline (except for Florida, where he has a plush golf resort that feeds his golfing addiction at taxpayer expense).  “Ø Oil Drilling!” signs are to be found all over the island.

Much of Ocracoke has an elevation of less than 5 feet, so it is under considerable threat during the hurricane season.  Warmer ocean temperatures will make the hurricanes more intense.

In 2003, Hurricane Isabel washed away a portion of next-door Hatteras Island, forming “Isabel Inlet”. NC Highway 12 was breached by the deep inlet, and the town of Hatteras was cut off from the rest of the island. Tons of sand had to be dumped into the inlet to fill it up before NC12 could be restored.

No one on Ocracoke seemed interested in the royal wedding, which was a blessed relief for an anti-monarchist such as yours truly, bored to tears by the overblown coverage the event received in the media. The abundance of water, sand, and sunshine gave people more important things to do, and seemed to put the royal nuptials in their proper perspective.

Access to Ocracoke is by ferry–  two plus hours from the two ferry terminals on the North Carolina coast or an hour or so from Hatteras Island.  The car journey to the ferry terminals on the coast takes one through the flatlands of eastern North Carolina, where there are many more pigs than humans.

North Carolina is the second-largest pig farming state in the US, and nearly all of this production is located in the eastern part of the state, especially near poorer black, native American and Latino communities.

Notionally the pig farms are owned by small farmers, but the latter operate as subcontractors for agribusiness conglomerates.  The largest of these is the Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods.

The main problems caused by such industrial-scale pork production are threefold.

The pig waste is emptied into giant cesspools, farcically named “lagoons”, next to the pig sheds, which stink out the entire place for miles around.  The Guardian in an informative reporton NC pig farming, says that “the pig farms of North Carolina produce around 10bn gallons of faeces a year, which is more than the volume of waste flushed down toilets by the human population of Germany”.

The pig slurry is then broken-down into liquid fertilizer, and sprayed on crops grown on neighbouring farms.  On most days the pig-shit droplets (aka “rain”) are borne by the air and deposited on nearby communities.  Local residents say it is impossible to dry laundry outside nowadays.

The water table is being contaminated by ammonia from the pig shit, and water wells are becoming unusable.

The agribusiness owners have North Carolina politicians in their pockets (Republican gerrymandering also helps!), so poor people turning to the politicians for redress is futile.

The only thing that is starting to work is recourse to legal action.  To quote from the above-mentioned Guardian report:

… in April, a jury in Raleigh awarded $50m in damages to 10 neighbours of the Kinlaw farm in Bladen county, which has three waste lagoons. And that case is just the first in a series of 25 similar claims against various hog operations in North Carolina, with the next to start on 29 May. A study of several of the plaintiffs’ homes by Shane Rogers, a former Environmental Protection Agency engineer, found widespread evidence of pig faecal matter on walls, mailboxes and street signs. A miasma of “offensive and sustained swine manure odours” lingers around the homes, Rogers wrote.

Residents hope that successful lawsuits will spur the avaricious agribusinesses into adopting readily available waste-disposal technologies, a step not taken so far because the greedy bastards want to make as much money as possible from their malodorous enterprises.

Journeying to beautiful offshore beaches while traversing areas dotted with miasmic and toxic porcine “lagoons”—what’s not to (dis)like?

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Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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