Hurricane Florence threatens to kill thousands of farm animals and trigger catastrophic spills of waste as it bears down on a Carolina coastal region dotted with sewage treatment plants, hog waste lagoons, poultry farms and coal ash ponds.
Past hurricanes, including Matthew in 2016, caused numerous spills from sewage treatment plants and livestock farms, complicating the task of cleaning up after the storm. Florence poses an even more serious risk, especially if the Category 4 hurricane parks itself over the region and dumps record amounts of rain.
Soil in much of the Carolinas is already saturated by several months of rainfall, adding to the potential risk of flooding and the collapse of earthen lagoons containing hog manure, coal ash or other types of waste.
“It heightens the risk,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The fact that the soil is already wet means surrounding land has less capacity to absorb the water. That means these lagoons are at greater threat of being overwhelmed.”
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Industry and municipal officials say they are taking steps to minimize the chance of spills. Some accuse environmentalists of exaggerating the threat.
“The preparations for a hurricane began long before the past few hours or days,” said Brandon Warren, president of the North Carolina Pork Council, in a statement. “Our farmers take hurricane threats extremely seriously.”
Hurricane Florence is so large it is certain to cause pollution releases in the Carolinas and Virginia, especially in urban areas that have combined sewer and storm-water systems. In 2016 and 2017, there were 136 sewage spills in an eight-county of eastern North Carolina, 36 of which were caused by severe weather, including 11 caused by Hurricane Matthew, according to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
North Carolina is also one of the nation’s top livestock producers, ranking third in poultry production and second in hog production, with more than 2,000 permitted swine farms and 9.3 million pigs. Sampson and Duplin counties are the two biggest producers and, as of Tuesday afternoon, both were within the projected path of Florence.
Most hog farms manage their waste by depositing it in earthen pits, known as lagoons, and spraying it on nearby fields. During big storms, uncovered lagoons — especially those that haven’t been drawn down — can fill up with rain and overflow.
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.
In preparation for Florence, the pork council released a statement saying its farmers were moving animals to higher ground, protecting feed stocks and assessing levels of waste in lagoons. Under their state permits, hog farmers must monitor the waste levels in their lagoons at least weekly and after every weather event causing one-inch of rain or more, according to Bridget Munger, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.
Munger added that, following Hurricane Floyd, North Carolina created a program to provide financial assistance for shutting down lagoons located in the 100-year flood plain. Some 43 swine farms and 100 lagoons in floodplains were closed as a part of the program, she said.
On Tuesday, hog farmer Tom Butler of Harnett County said he’s confident his operations can withstand the storm. But he’s watching the track closely.
“It’s been a wet summer. Five weeks of almost continuous rain,” Butler said. “I have covered lagoons. I can’t imagine guys with open lagoons.”
In its statement, the pork council took a shot at environmental groups for stoking hurricane fears.
“Despite dire predictions from activist environmental groups, North Carolina farmers were well prepared for Hurricane Matthew when it arrived in October 2016,” it said in its statement. The group added that only one waste lagoon failed because of the storm, with 14 others inundated.
Overall, 2,800 hogs and 1.8 million poultry birds died in that storm, according to Heather Overton, a spokeswoman with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.
Holleman said that coal ash pits managed by Duke Energy, Dominion and other utilities are one of his biggest worries. Some of these pits have failed and caused spills even in relatively good weather.
One of the largest spills occurred in February 2014, when 39,000 tons of coal ash flowed into the Dan River from a broken drainage pipe at Duke Energy’s facility in Eden, N.C. Environmentalists also claimed that Duke Energy was responsible for a coal ash spill in the Neuse River during Hurricane Matthew, an accusation the DEQ rejected at the time.
Erin Culbert, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said the company has been working to prepare ash basins and cooling ponds for the hurricane. Duke has “pre-staged field staff and equipment” to several ash basin sites, including four in North Carolina and one in South Carolina. “These sites already have lower levels of water in the ash basins due to our basin closure work and can hold significant rainfall,” she said in an email.
Following any flood event, state and federal environmental officials recommend caution in cleaning up property and items that could have become contaminated by flood waters. Such water could be contaminated by toxins and fecal bacteria that could trigger a range of health problems, including rashes and severe food poisoning.
The News & Observer’s Craig Jarvis contributed to this report.