On September 14, Hurricane Florence made landfall in the Carolinas. While Florence made landfall as a Category One hurricane and was later downgraded to a tropical depression, it is estimated that the storm dumped as much of 36 inches of rain in the region. And while the scope and scale of the flooding are unprecedented, the dangers posed by the overflow of manure lagoons and other industrial wastes have been present for decades.
Climate change causes not only more frequent storms, but more intense rainfall events, like experienced during Florence. As temperatures increase, the volume of water stored in a storm will increase, causing the slow-moving deluges, like Florence and last year’s Harvey, to drop more water. As Harvey proved, many infrastructure systems are inadequately prepared to deal with extreme rain events, and communities suffer not only from the floodwater itself but floodwater tainted with toxins ranging from chemicals to manure, coal ash, and more.
Currently, the death toll from Florence is 42. A total of 340,000 households lack power, and another 600,000 are on a “boil water” notice. Costs to the region will end up in the billions. Just two years on the heels of Hurricane Matthew, the evidence suggests the region, and the country, are still not adequately addressing how to better prepare against climate impacts, such as extreme weather events.
While some parts of the region are still actively dealing with flooding, including parts of South Carolina, floodwaters in much of North Carolina have receded, allowing communities to begin assessing the damages.
In the agriculture sector, the region is home to the country’s highest concentration of hogs – holding 2,100 industrial hog farms that raise 9 million hogs, as well as numerous chicken farms. The devastation of Hurricane Floyd in 1999 laid bare the vulnerabilities of feedlots in the region. But instead of updating the antiquated practice of storing hog manure in open pits, the state bought out 43 hog farms located in floodplains. An additional 60 facilities still lie in the 100-year floodplain. For comparison, Florence was a 1000-year storm.
North Carolina is the second largest pork producer in the country, with most of the 2,100 industrial-sized hog farms located in low-lying, flood-prone areas. In the aftermath of Florence, the Washington Post reported that two dozen hog farms had their manure pits overflow, over 5,000 hogs have died, and 3.4 million chickens have died. According to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, in addition to the overflow at two dozen manure lagoons, four lagoons have suffered structural damage and another 55 are at or near capacity.
The floodwaters tainted with manure will have the highest impact on poorer residents of color, who overwhelmingly make up the communities surrounding hog farms in the eastern part of the state. At this point, 600,000 residents are on a boil water advisory, due to the potential for the manure, as well as breached coal ash pits, to foul water reservoirs. Another concern is the age of the drinking water infrastructure, which is poorly equipped to handle flooding and contamination.
The North Carolina Pork Council states that manure lagoons should be equipped to hold a rain event of 19 inches. Producers prepared as best they could for the storm by pumping down lagoons (spraying manure on fields) and moving hogs. But with record flood levels, unprecedented damage still occurred.
Farmers are in a bind as they have few choices to deal with the waste prior to a storm. These facilities are largely contract farms, where farmers take out large operating loans from corporations to build the facilities required for rearing pigs, as specified by the corporation. The farmers are then contracted to raise the company’s pigs and are left to deal with the waste. Most farmers cannot afford to install better waste management systems. At the same time, the state has done little to require updated equipment and disposal methods, such as converting the waste to biogas, a renewable form of natural gas.
According to Matt Butler, a program director at the local environmental group Sound Rivers, “with Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and now with Florence, we just keep repeating the same mistakes.” Local advocates point out that large corporations operating in the area, like Smithfield, should ask themselves “how do we take some of the billions of dollars that we’re making in profit and turn it back around to find a better system.”
For more information see:
- In North Carolina, Hog Waste Pollution a Familiar Result. Will Things Ever change?, Environmental Health News
- More Headaches as Florence’s Waters Overtake Toxic Pits and Hog Lagoons, The Washington Post
- Florence Portends More Massive Hurricanes in Age of Global Warming, Reuters
- Hurricane Florence Could Flood Hog Manure Pits, Coal Ash Dumps in North Carolina, CBS News