Hurricane Florence’s heavy rains last week, along with ongoing major flooding, has caused one small hog lagoon to breach and flooded four others, according to the N.C. Pork Council.
In a statement Monday night, the council said another seven are at capacity and appear to have overtopped. Still, the council said after on-farm assessments and industry surveying, it did not believe there had been widespread impacts to 3,000 lagoons in the state that hold hog waste.
The hog farms and lagoons are just one of several environmental threats to the state from Florence.
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Coal ash ponds, chemical factories, landfills and hazardous waste dumps also are located on or near North Carolina’s two main rivers in Eastern North Carolina, the Cape Fear River and the Neuse River.
“North Carolina allows all this dangerous waste to be stored next to its flooding coastal — and, for that matter, inland — rivers,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “How long do we have to go through this until we decide it’s too much risk?”
Duke Energy provides power for most of North Carolina, as well as much of the rest of the Southeast, and some of its coal ash ponds throughout North Carolina are already flooding. Holleman said the SELC — which has sued Duke in the past over its coal ash ponds and other issues — is monitoring a number of coal ash sites in the wake of Hurricane Florence.
“The concerns all over North Carolina prove, again, that it’s dangerous for Duke Energy to be storing coal ash along the rivers,” he said.
But Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan disputed that, saying Monday that “everything is safe and sound.”
Soon after the worst of the storm had passed, the N.C. Pork Council said on Monday that of the thousands of hog lagoons in North Carolina, only a lagoon in Duplin County had breached and four others had been flooded. Another seven are at capacity and appear to have overtopped, according to the council.
Of the lagoon in Duplin County, the council’s statement said: “an on-site inspection showed that solids remained in the lagoon.”
In it’s statement, the council noted that during Hurricane Matthew 14 lagoons were inundated by floodwaters but no lagoons overtopped and the only breach was on an inactive farm.
The council said it would continue to assess the impact of the record-setting floods.
Hog lagoons are of concern because of their prevalence throughout Eastern North Carolina — especially in Sampson and Duplin counties — where massive numbers of hogs make North Carolina the second-largest pork producing state in the nation.
Damage to the farms would hurt the economy — hog farming is a $2.5 billion business in North Carolina according to N.C. Farm Families, an advocacy group funded largely by Smithfield Foods — and would also hurt the environment. Accompanying hog farms are hog lagoons, which store tons upon tons of waste.
The worst agricultural spill in state history was a 1995 hog lagoon breach in Onslow County, according to past News & Observer reporting. And following the devastation of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, which littered the state’s rivers with thousands of dead hogs and waste from 50 lagoon spills, the state paid some farmers in flood-prone areas to close down their operations.
While the number of reported hog lagoon spills after Florence has not been nearly as large as after past disasters, the numbers might still increase in the coming days as flooding worsens.
“The reports that I’ve seen estimate that many of these spots on the Cape Fear, the Lumber, the Neuse (rivers), they won’t crest until the middle of the week,” said Geoff Gisler, an SELC attorney, on Monday. “So unfortunately there’s more trouble on the way for parts of Eastern North Carolina that have already been hit so hard.”
While the Pork Council said it remained “concerned about the potential impact of these record-shattering floods,” it also noted that during Hurricane Matthew municipal wastewater treatment plants spilled more than 154 million gallons of untreated human waste into the state’s waterways.
On Friday, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority on Friday reported that more than 5 million gallons of partially-treated wastewater spilled out of its sewage plant south of downtown Wilmington and flowed into the Cape Fear River, a few miles upstream of the Atlantic Ocean. And on Monday, Johnston County reported two smaller spills of about 300,000 gallons of sewage, with more than a quarter of a million gallons spilling in Selma and 28,000 gallons spilling near the Neuse River between Smithfield and Four Oaks.
Coal ash and industrial waste
Exact details of the extent of coal ash spills were difficult to pin down in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
For example, there’s disagreement over how many spills occured at Duke Energy’s Sutton coal ash site outside of Wilmington. The EPA believes there were at least two spills, according to Bloomberg News, and the local branch of the Waterkeepers Alliance group reported seeing “at least two sections of the site with overflows.” But Sheehan, the Duke Energy spokeswoman, said there was just one spill, which lasted over several days.
Holleman said the SELC was also watching coal ash sites in Wayne County and Robeson County for potential spills.
Duke Energy confirmed that at least 2,000 cubic feet had spilled from the coal ash plant outside of Wilmington — enough to nearly fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, Duke said — but Sheehan said there were no spills at those other sites Holleman named.
She said the Wayne County site, called the Lee site, outside Goldsboro was experiencing some flooding but did not appear in immediate danger of a spill. Although floodwaters from the Neuse River have reached the coal ash pond there, she said, Duke made improvements to the site after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 to prevent the coal ash from spilling into the river, even in the event of flooding.
“Following Hurricane Matthew, we constructed a second, larger spillway on the cooling pond that will allow significantly more flow to safely exit the pond,” Sheehan wrote in an email. “The level in the cooling pond has not reached this new spillway yet.”
Also of concern is the Chemours factory outside of Fayetteville, which was responsible for the state’s GenX and other emerging contaminant pollution in the Cape Fear River. GenX is a chemical used in Teflon and other products. It’s largely unregulated but is believed to be tied to cancer and other diseases.
It’s one of many factories, landfills and other potentially polluted areas in North Carolina near a major river.
Officials in Cumberland and Harnett counties evacuated thousands of residents over the weekend, and the flooding that spurred those evacuations has also stopped state inspectors from visiting the Chemours factory, Bloomberg News reported Monday.
Although the state ordered Chemours to stop dumping GenX directly into the Cape Fear River, at least one lawsuit alleges that GenX or related chemicals continue to seep into the river through unlined storage pits and ditches located near the river.
Nuclear plants and hazardous waste
In Brunswick County in North Carolina’s far southeastern corner, Duke Energy temporarily shut down one of its nuclear power plants in advance of the storm. And while flooding didn’t damage the plant, it has left about 300 workers stranded there, The News & Observer reported.
Further upstream, flooding along the Neuse and Cape Fear rivers also means floodwaters are approaching a number of hazardous waste storage sites as well as contaminated industrial sites called brownfields and Superfund sites.
Brownfields are more common than Superfund sites. Data from DEQ shows there are around a dozen brownfields in Goldsboro and Kinston, where the Neuse is experience major flooding that was still rising as of Monday night.
Wilmington is also home to a number of brownfield sites, mostly clustered around the Cape Fear River. Other cities experiencing major flooding like Fayetteville and Lumberton have their share of the contaminated sites as well.
The more serious concerns, at Superfund sites, are less common in North Carolina. More than 40 Superfund sites in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia were in the direct path of Florence, the EPA reported, including at least 11 in North Carolina near the coast.
Other Superfund sites weren’t in direct danger from the storm itself but could be exposed to flooding, like the Superfund site at N.C. State University near Carter-Finley Stadium.
The EPA is monitoring the possibility for flooding there — as well as at Superfund sites in Morrisville and in north Raleigh — but said it does not expect “a significant likelihood of hazardous substance release or damage due to the storm” at any of them.