Last year, as part of the INDY
’s three-part series into North Carolina’s hog industry, we took a deep dive
into the question of what might happen to all of the pig waste stored in uncovered, sometimes-leaky lagoons should another monster hurricane come through the eastern part of the state. Lo and behold, we may be about to find out.
As we reported:
In October, Hurricane Matthew wreaked havoc across eastern North Carolina, causing $1.5 billion in damage to one hundred thousand homes, businesses, and government buildings, according to a state estimate.
See all the orange on this map?
Agricultural operations fared no better.
"I saw about a dozen lagoons under water, and probably another ten poultry facilities where the barns were underwater," says [Travis] Graves, the recently retired Lower Neuse riverkeeper. "Even if the lagoons weren't breached, you could see that they had been completely flushed. All of that ended up right in the Neuse River."
The Pork Council says that fourteen lagoons flooded, less than 1 percent of lagoons in the state. Smithfield Foods attributes that to the state's buyout program after Hurricane Floyd and the "proactive steps taken on North Carolina hog farms." The company says more serious environmental damage has been incurred by spills at municipal sewage plants.
Those are hog farms, and if Florence hangs out along the North Carolina/South Carolina coast for a day or more at category 3 strength (or stronger), they're going to get a ton of wind and rain.
The problem is pretty simple, really: There are some nine million pigs in North Carolina, most of them concentrated where the storm is going to hit hardest. Those pigs produce lots and lots of waste, much more than humans do. At most concentrated animal feeding operations—what the industry calls farms—that waste is liquefied and stored in open-air lagoons. When the lagoons fill up, their contents are sprayed as mist
(which, according to a number of lawsuits, sometimes finds its way to neighbors’ property
). But the fear for environmental advocates is that, when you have a huge rain event that sees ten or twenty or more inches in a short period of time, those lagoons will flood, spilling their contents into nearby waterways, killing wildlife, and potentially contaminating groundwater.
The industry is downplaying this possibility. If farmers prepare—by pumping their lagoons and spraying the waste ahead of the storm—they could handle up to three feet of rain, according to N.C. State scientists
. But maybe not. From NPR:
Here's the really bad scenario: Water starts overflowing and erodes the lagoon wall, causing a wall to collapse, spreading animal waste across the landscape and into rivers. Rising rivers could also inundate some low-lying lagoons and hog houses.
Those lagoon walls didn’t collapse during Hurricane Matthew, the industry happily points out. But they have before. From The News & Observer
Although the pork industry says that instances of lagoon failure are rare, there have been cases of earthen berms breaking and spilling lagoon waste into waterways. One of the most famous occurred in Onslow County in 1995, causing the worst agricultural spill in state history and leading to a 1997 state moratorium on new hog lagoons.
During Hurricane Floyd in 1999, thousands of hogs were drowned by flood waters, with some found floating down creeks and rivers. That storm also inundated more than 50 hog lagoons, according to figures by the North Carolina Pork Council, which represents both farmers and big pork processors, such as Smithfield Foods.
And the experts are worried. As Jamie Kruse, director of the Center for Natural Hazards Research at East Carolina University, told CBS News
, "This one is pretty scary. The environmental impacts will be from concentrated animal feeding operations and coal ash pits. Until the system gets flushed out, there's going to be a lot of junk in the water."
In a statement, however, the N.C. Pork Council
insists that there’s nothing to worry about.
Hog farmers across Eastern North Carolina are making final preparations for the forecast arrival of Hurricane Florence. Farmers have taken precautions to protect animals, manage lagoons and prepare for power outages that are anticipated from the major hurricane, which is forecast to bring more than 15 inches of rain and high winds to many of the state’s largest pig- and hog-producing counties.
Actions that farmers are taking include:
Shifting animals to higher ground. Farmers and integrators are working to move animals out of barns in known flood-prone areas, shifting them to other farms to prevent animal mortality.
“Our farmers and others in the pork industry are working together to take precautions that will protect our farms, our animals and our environment,” said Brandon Warren, President of the North Carolina Pork Council and a hog farmer from Sampson County. “The preparations for a hurricane began long before the past few hours or days. Our farmers take hurricane threats extremely seriously. We are continuing this work until the storm will force us inside.”
- Ensuring feed supplies are in place. Farmers and integrators are taking precautions to ensure ample feed provisions are on farms in anticipation of impassable roadways.
- Preparing for power outages. Farmers are securing generators and fuel supplies to respond to extended power outages.
- Assessing lagoon levels. Farmers have carefully managed their lagoons throughout the summer growing season, using their manure as a crop fertilizer. Every hog farm lagoon is required to maintain a minimum buffer to account for major flood events. Farmers across the major production areas of North Carolina are reporting current lagoon storage levels that can accommodate more than 25 inches of rain, with many reporting capacity volumes far beyond that.
Of course, if the hog industry (along with Duke Energy) is wrong, the Associated Press notes
, “The heavy rain expected from Hurricane Florence could flood hog manure pits, coal ash dumps and other industrial sites in North Carolina, creating a noxious witches’ brew of waste that might wash into homes and threaten drinking water supplies.”