- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Young hogs in pens at Butler Farms in Lillington
Editor's note: This is the second installment of a three-part investigation into North Carolina's hog-farming industry. The first story examined claims by lower-income African-American residents of eastern North Carolina that neighboring hog farms have polluted their properties and efforts by lawmakers to shield pork producers from litigation. This story looks at the environmental impacts hog farming has had over the last two decades, particularly on waterways such as the Neuse River. The final piece will discuss ways to make the multibillion-dollar hog industry more sustainable, both for the environment and the state's rural population, and the political and financial reasons those steps have not been taken.
PART TWO: THE FLOOD
I. "Mother Nature Will Strike Back"
On September 16, 1999, Hurricane Floyd, a category 2 storm with sustained winds of 110 mph and a storm surge of nearly ten feet, made landfall at Cape Fear. Between fifteen and twenty inches of rain pummeled eastern North Carolina. Forty-eight people died. Thousands more were displaced.
To make matters worse, just a few weeks earlier, Hurricane Dennis had brought heavy rains to the region. By the time Floyd hit, nearly every river basin in the eastern part of the state exceeded five-hundred-year flood levels. In the end, Floyd caused nearly $7 billion in damage.
The torrential downpour unleashed something else, too: when the floodwaters saturated miles of North Carolina's farmland, they swallowed many of the farm animals that made their homes in those fields. Tens of thousands of hogs and chickens drowned, and millions of gallons of waste—an admixture of feces, urine, blood, and other fluids housed in lagoons—merged with the swollen Neuse River and its tributaries.
When those floodwaters receded and soaked into the ground, they took the contents of those lagoons with them. The pollutants entered the Neuse River basin, a waterway that begins its eastward path in Durham and feeds into the Pamlico Sound, the nation's second-largest estuarine complex. The sound is so vast—eighty miles long and twenty miles wide—that, in 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano mistook it for the Pacific Ocean. Today it provides an estimated 90 percent of the state's commercial fish and shellfish catches, an industry worth nearly $100 million annually.
Floyd put all that in jeopardy. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and heavy metals found in the waste sat dormant in the Neuse and the sound it feeds. Months later, rising water temperatures activated the growth of algae blooms. During their ultimate decomposition, those blooms sucked the oxygen out of the water below, and hundreds of thousands of fish washed up on riverbanks.
These events prompted the legislature to authorize the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which allocated $18.7 million for the voluntary buyouts of hog and chicken farms located inside the Neuse's floodplain. But while forty-three farmers shut down—representing at least sixty thousand hogs and more than one hundred lagoons, according to state records—sixty-two farms remained, housing more than 250,000 hogs and nearly two million chickens.
Scientists and clean-water advocates have long worried that a sequel to Floyd could once again devastate eastern North Carolina.
"I live on the Neuse River, and I've seen the fish die in this river," says former Neuse riverkeeper Rick Dove. "We've lost over a billion [fish] in this river due to pollution. There's no river in the U.S. that has suffered more fish kills than the Neuse. And let me tell you something. The laws of nature are far more powerful than the laws of men. And when you abuse nature over a long period of time, she's very forgiving and she's healing, but if you continue to pollute and desecrate and violate the laws of nature, she will strike back with something to stop you."
Last fall, she struck back.
Hurricane Matthew, a category 1 storm that rotated over North Carolina for more than twelve hours, washed out entire towns, uprooted centuries-old trees, and destroyed businesses. According to the N.C. Pork Council, fourteen waste lagoons flooded. When those waters receded, they took the contents of those lagoons with them, clean-water advocates say. What didn't end up in the river soaked into the ground. And when water temperatures rise this summer, they argue, that waste could reveal itself in the form of fish-killing algae that has the potential to damage the state's seafood industry.
"We don't even know what the summer will bring," Dove says. "But I think it's safe to say it's going to be another wake-up call."