Hurricane Florence Brings Another Hog Waste Flood to North Carolina

Mixed in with the hurricane's floodwaters are the contents of huge pits filled with pig poop.

These NASA satellite images show water discolored by excess soils, sediments, decaying leaves, pollution and other debris after Hurricane Florence.
This NASA satellite image of North Carolina's coast shows water discolored by excess soils, sediments, decaying leaves, pollution and other debris after Hurricane Florence. (Photo Courtesy of Joshua Stevens / NASA)

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Right now, much of North Carolina’s southeastern coastal plain is under water, as the rains brought on by Hurricane Florence cause rivers and streams to swell and overwhelm the surrounding lands. Mixed in with these floodwaters are the contents of scores of huge pits filled with pig poop.   

Each year, North Carolina’s industrial hog operations produce enough fecal waste to fill more than 14,300 Olympic-size swimming pools. Much of that waste is stored in 4,145 hog “lagoons” – open-air pits clustered in the area hardest hit by Hurricane Florence, where hogs can outnumber people 40 to 1

When it rains too much, these pits filled with poop – which carries E. coli, salmonella, cryptosporidium and all kinds of other harmful bacteria – overflow into surrounding rivers and streams. This happened in 1999 with Hurricane Floyd, when 50 lagoons flooded and six ruptured, causing algal blooms and mass fish die-offs, as well as major risks to public health from pathogenic bacteria or viruses found in floodwaters. And, again, in 2016 with Hurricane Matthew when at least 14 hog lagoons were flooded and two were breached.

Last spring, Earthjustice—working in partnership with Yale Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic and the North Carolina-based Chambers Center for Civil Rights—settled a civil rights complaint filed in 2014 on behalf of the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, and Waterkeeper Alliance. As part of the settlement, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) agreed to update its storm standards — requiring industrial hog operations to better prepare for storms. But those new standards have yet to take effect. The effects of Hurricane Florence continue to demonstrate why they’re necessary.

Florence has dumped up to 50 inches of rain across North Carolina. As a result, at least 31 hog lagoons have overflowed,  at least 23 more have been inundated by floodwaters, and at least six have been damaged or completely breached, with many more at risk, according to DEQ.  

“These cesspools of hog waste failed completely, spilling millions of gallons of untreated hog waste into floodwaters,” Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette says, in reference to the breached lagoons. “Even worse, these contaminated waters will flow through communities downstream, threatening homes, churches, schools, and anything else in their path.”

The full extent of the damage has yet to be seen.

For people living in and around Duplin County, flooding poses an urgent threat – but problems stemming from industrial hog operations are nothing new. For nearly two decades, local residents – who are disproportionately African American, Latino or Native American – have been fighting against air and water pollution from the industrial operations that surround them, as well as a pervading stench that forces people inside their homes.

The resulting health problems are well-documented. A new Duke University study shows that people living in communities with the highest density of hog operations experienced 30 percent more deaths among patients with kidney disease, 50 percent more deaths among patients with anemia, and 130 percent more deaths among patients with sepsis, as compared to people in communities without big hog facilities.

“Because of the smell, my family and I do not spend much time outside,” said a Duplin County resident, whose home is surrounded by hog facilities. “We always keep the windows in the house closed. Otherwise, the stink from the hog facilities can get inside.”

In addition to the smell, local residents suffer from contaminated air.

The EPA has exempted all “farms,” including concentrated animal feeding operations such as the industrial hog facilities, from notifying authorities and communities when they release dangerous quantities of toxic gases. On behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance and Sierra Club, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on Sept. 14 to force the EPA to disclose public records that could shed light on this decision.

Many hog facilities routinely empty their hog lagoons by spraying waste onto surrounding fields, a practice the government and industry groups euphemistically call “nutrient management.” Human waste, which is processed extensively at sewage treatment plants and discharged below ground would never be disposed of this way. Human waste and hog waste are quite similar

Another Duplin County resident said that the nearby hog facility often sprays pig waste over a field that’s next to his property without advance notice. “The spraying leaves a fine red dust or mist that covers all of the screens on the windows and doors on my house. I usually cover my face just to go outside. When the smell is particularly bad, I have to wrap a towel around my nose and mouth and sometimes wear goggles. I still sometimes have trouble breathing, sometimes for a week or two.”

Many industrial hog operations spray fields just before a storm in order to lower the level of waste in their lagoons. However, that allows the pig waste to run off fields into rivers more easily when the rains come. The NC Pork Council touted this practice in recent weeks, even though state permits prohibit spraying more than four hours after a hurricane warning.

“No one thinks it’s a good idea to spray waste on the fields right before a storm,” says Earthjustice Attorney Alexis Andiman. “Basically, they’re trying to reduce the chance of pollution by guaranteeing pollution.”

Hog operations that use the lagoon-and-sprayfield system may feel they have no other choice. The vast majority of North Carolina’s hog operations are under contract with Smithfield Foods, a Chinese-owned corporation that owns the pigs, while the individual operators own everything else, including the pigs’ waste. Saddled with crippling debt, these operators have to do something with the waste. Often, they are forced to choose the least expensive option.

“The folks who run these operations are in a really tight spot,” Andiman says.

As Hurricane Florence barreled toward North Carolina, the state was operating under standards set back in the 1960s – and hog operators were required to ready their lagoons only to sustain floods caused by 1960-era moderate storms, known as 25-year storms. However, these days, climate change is causing 100-year mega-storms to happen with alarming frequency. Since the 1990s, North Carolina has endured four hurricanes or tropical storms that qualify as 100-year storms.

“With climate change, the storms are changing so rapidly the standards can’t keep up,” Andiman says.

There are currently 170 hog lagoons located within a 100-year flood plain in North Carolina. As storms like Hurricanes Floyd, Matthew and Florence continue to ravage the state, those lagoons will continue to spill their contents onto surrounding lands and waters. 

“Alternatives to the lagoon-and-sprayfield system exist,” Andiman says. “People need to start thinking about the best solution now, before the next storm hits.”

Emilie has spent the past two decades as a journalist, speechwriter and communications strategist in Washington, D.C. At Earthjustice, she shares the stories of the people and issues at the heart of our clean energy litigation and policy work.

Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming program aims to make our nation’s food system safer and more climate friendly.