Floodwaters from Hurricane Florence, now a tropical depression, have inundated homes, roads, and whole communities across North Carolina. Also submerged: toxic pits of hog manure and coal ash, which, when flooded, can contaminate the state's waterways with bacteria and viruses, heavy metals, and other harmful substances.
Late on Monday, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality recorded a total of two hog-waste pits, known as lagoons, with structural damage, and 11 whose contents had overflowed, according to the New York Times. Several Superfund sites and chemical plants are also at risk.
Meanwhile, the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance has been conducting its own aerial surveillance. On Monday, its flyovers captured images of flooded and breached lagoons, as well as at least five coal ash facilities that have been breached or are in danger of breaching. These counts will likely rise with the floodwaters: Will Hendrick, Waterkeeper Alliance staff attorney, who has been coordinating the Florence response, says the group is still surveying the damage in its early stages, as rivers are only expected to crest later this week. Already, the National Weather Service has recorded heavy rainfall and catastrophic flooding across North Carolina, with rivers projected to exceed historical levels.
Of the state's thousands of industrial hog farms, 62 are located in the 100-year floodplain; these operations alone generate more than 200 million gallons of waste per year, according to Hendrick. Now, much of this area is underwater.
"It's way too easy to predicate that this is going to happen when you continue to store tremendous volumes of waste in facilities that are located in the 100-year floodplain and that are, moreover, in the coastal plain, where they're likely to bear the brunt of these increasingly frequent and severe weather events," Hendrick says.
In its own surveys, the industry group North Carolina Pork Council said Monday that it recorded just one lagoon breach (when a pit's walls give way) and four inundated lagoons (when its contents spill out and mix with the floodwaters). This announcement came only after the state department of environmental quality updated the record; as late as Monday afternoon, the Pork Council had noted no damage, saying in a statement, "We do not anticipate severe impacts to the vast majority of the more than 2,100 permitted farms in the state.
Even these reports may not convey the depth of the damage done to North Carolina's waterways. Michael Mallin, professor at University of North Carolina–Wilmington's Center for Marine Sciences, says contamination can occur even without a lagoon overflowing. Last week, E&E News reported that farmers' groups were working to prevent spills, citing "improvements in storage methods" and attempts to lower levels in the lagoons. Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, told E&E that farmers had been draining the pits all week by spraying waste onto nearby fields. The practice is intended to prevent contamination ahead of storm; instead, spraying gives it a head start.
"If they all at once start pumping and spraying very heavily in an area, that stuff's not going away," Mallin says. "It's going out of the lagoon, but it's going on the fields around and getting down into the groundwater." Florence's torrential rainfall will only exacerbate this, sending contaminates into wells, creeks, and rivers, where Mallin says fecal bacteria and viruses can survive in the sediment for months.
Last week, E&E News reported that farmers' groups were working to prevent spills, citing "improvements in storage methods" and attempts to lower levels in the lagoons. Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, told E&E that farmers had been draining the pits all week by spraying waste onto nearby fields.
For this reason, North Carolina's general permits prohibit farm operations from spraying on fields starting four hours after the National Weather Service issues warnings for storms such as Florence. Even so, Hendrick said Waterkeeper's aerial surveyors photographed more than 10 facilities spraying directly ahead of—and during—the storm. They also recorded more flagrant activity: spraying into clearly flooded fields, directly piping waste out of lagoons.
Although the risk of contamination has become more urgent under Florence, this problem goes back decades. North Carolina is the second-largest producer of pork in the United States, containing counties with 25 times as many hogs as people. For years, this industry went unregulated, and its waste untreated (There are still no treatment requirements for animal waste.) As Pacific Standard reported last week:
With millions of hogs comes a lot of waste. In these giant operations, feces, urine, and anything else that seeps beneath pens' slatted floors—stillborn pigs, afterbirths, pesticides, blood—form a liquid slurry, which is then pumped into open-earth pits, known in the industry as lagoons. Smithfield's lagoons cover 120,000 square feet and run 30 feet deep, Rolling Stone reports. That's dangerously close to the water table of this low coastal plain, which was once entirely wetlands. The pools contain a toxic brew that turns "Pepto Bismol" pink, farmers say, from its contents' chemical interactions. When ingested, health hazards include higher risks of cancer, miscarriage, and infectious disease, studies have found.
The state's attempts to regulate the hog industry include a moratorium on new or expanding operations using the lagoon and spray field system, as well as a state-sponsored buyout program, presented to operations located inside the 100-year floodplain in hopes that they relocate. Studies have shown the program to be a slow and costly process; according to Waterkeeper, 138 operations applied for the buyout, but only 43 farms in the 100-year flood zone were closed.
Even with relocation, Hendrick says, "That's the 100-year floodplain and this is a 500-year storm. Given the devastation that we expect to the industry, we hope that, if and when it is rebuilt, it is rebuilt on stronger footing for surrounding communities, using superior technologies so that public health and environmental quality aren't jeopardized by pork production."