Travis Graves has hundreds of pictures that he says prove that over the last five years, hundreds of millions of fish have washed ashore along North Carolina's Neuse River, which runs from northwest Durham into the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. Those fish kills, the Lower Neuse Riverkeeper says, can be traced to algae blooms that feed off nitrogen and phosphorus.
So last fall, when Hurricane Matthew flooded more than a dozen swine lagoons and several chicken farms in eastern North Carolina—all located within the Neuse River's hundred-year floodplain—sending millions of gallons of nitrogen-rich hog waste and phosphorus-laden chicken excrement into the river, river advocates hit their panic buttons.
The state's industrial hog farms were already damaging the Neuse by spraying waste onto fields near the river and its tributaries, they allege. But now, the river is in serious trouble.
On Tuesday morning, American Rivers listed the Neuse, along with Cape Fear River, as the seventh most endangered river in the United States. In its report—"America's Most Endangered Rivers 2017," which highlights "ten rivers whose fate will be decided in the coming year"—the national river conservation organization blamed the millions of gallons of untreated hog feces and urine that North Carolina hog farmers spray onto fields that drain into streams and groundwater, which contaminate the Neuse with nitrogen, antibiotics, and bacteria, as well Hurricane Matthew-related flooding that spewed animal waste into the Neuse.
And the problem's only going to get worse.
"The threat these facilities and their antiquated waste operations pose to our waters will only increase as the effects of climate change become more prevalent and North Carolina is subjected to more frequent powerful storms," the report states.
Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, which owns the vast majority of the more than two hundred thousand hogs living inside the Neuse floodplain, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
There are currently sixty-two swine facilities that house more than 235,000 hogs and at least thirty poultry farms that house nearly two million chickens located within the Neuse's floodplain. Many of them, Graves says, were underwater in the days after Matthew battered the eastern part of the state.
"I saw about a dozen lagoons under water, and probably another ten poultry facilities where the barns were underwater," Graves says. "Even if the lagoons weren't breached, you could see that they had been completely flushed. The water in the lagoons was the same color as the floodwaters around it, not that usual pink color you see. All of that ended up right in the Neuse River and is contributing to that excessive nutrient pollution."
Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Star believes there's a solution. After Hurricane Floyd battered eastern North Carolina in 1999, the legislature authorized the Clean Water Management Trust Fund to provide $18.7 million for forty-three voluntary buyouts of hog and poultry operations located inside the Neuse's floodplain.
"Thirty-two of those would have flooded during Matthew," Starr says. "Think about that. That's a ton of waste that we prevented from getting into that river."
After Matthew, advocates are urging legislators to do the same thing.
In its report, American Rivers argues that "there is a simple and commonsense action that can be taken to reduce the threat to our water resources and communities": simply remove hog and chicken facilities from the Neuse floodplain.
"The opportunity to accomplish this may never be better than it is now, in the first legislative session following Hurricane Matthew," the report says. "The General Assembly must include funding to restore the Swine Buyout program and include language expanding it to all [concentrated animal feeding operations] in the floodplain as part of the Hurricane Matthew recovery bill."
"You shut down. Here's your money. It's that simple," Starr says. "And I want to be really clear. This is a voluntary program that is there for these facilities. After Hurricane Floyd, one hundred thirty facilities applied. This was a wanted program."
The N.C. Pork Council is amenable to such an approach. A spokesman told The News & Observer that the industry "would be supportive of voluntary efforts for a buyout."
Still, it's unclear whether the legislature will take the Neuse's place on Americans Rivers' list seriously enough to act. But Graves says that by this summer, the repercussions of Hurricane Matthew flooding the hog lagoons and chicken farms near the Neuse will be too intense to ignore.
"I have serious concerns over what kind of fish kill numbers we're going to see this summer," he says. "I'm anticipating it to be the worst summer for fish kills in the last five years. I'm really hoping this will take the industry in North Carolina out of its bubble a little bit and give it a national reference point. Not only is the river threatened, but also on a nationwide scale, this river is very much endangered."
And if the legislature fails to act?
"We're going to continue to see nutrient pollution in the lower Neuse. It's going to increase, as it has for the last thirty years," Graves says. "And that increase is going to continue to fish kills, which is going to hurt tourism, it's going to hurt the commercial fishing industry, and, ultimately, it's going to hurt the future health of our rivers. Ultimately, it could get to the point where places like Kinston and Goldsboro that draw their drinking water directly out of the Neuse River, we'll start to see nitrogen levels that are hazardous to humans."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Neuse Is Sick."