The 40 inches of rain Hurricane Florence has dumped on North Carolina is leaving a trail of industrial waste as runoff from coal ash pits, inundated sewage systems, and feces from dozens of hog farms pours into rivers, lakes, and neighborhoods.
North Carolina is home to the densest population of hogs in the country with 2,100 hog farms producing an estimated 40 million gallons of hog poop a day, most of which ends up being stored in 3,000 open-pit earthen basins known as “lagoons.”
Before Florence made landfall, hog farms had been frantically trying to lower the level of those lagoons by spraying the waste on fields. But as of noon Tuesday, four hog lagoons in the hurricane area had been breached, 13 had overflowed and nine had been inundated. Another 55 were at or almost at capacity and in danger of overflowing, according to the Department of Environmental Quality.
“You basically have a toxic soup for people who live in close proximity to those lagoons,” said Sacoby Wilson, a professor of public health at the University of Maryland. “All of these contaminants that are in the hog lagoons, like salmonella, giardia, and E-coli, can get into the waterways and infect people trying to get out.”
These lagoons contain large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, which farmers spray as fertilizer onto nearby fields. In excess, these nutrients are also a primary contributor to algae blooms and so-called “dead zones,” large areas with such low levels of oxygen that animals can’t survive. Some, like the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is so big it can be seen from space.
Nitrogen from agricultural runoff is also the primary contributor to dangerous levels of nitrate in drinking water across parts of the U.S., which has been linked to different kinds of cancers and blue baby syndrome, a potentially fatal infant condition.
“You basically have a toxic soup for people who live in close proximity to those lagoons”
Things could still get worse. Duplin County, which has the highest density of hogs in the state, is bisected by the Cape Fear River, which is forecast to reach major flood levels Tuesday with a crest of 62.3 feet. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the Cape Fear River inundated 14 hog waste lagoons. The river had crested at 58.9 feet.
“North Carolina gets hurricanes and floods every year,” said Michelle Nowlin, law professor at Duke University. “I question the wisdom of having a disposal method that is so vulnerable to the types of weather events that we have in this region, with potentially catastrophic effects.”
It’s not just hog waste that’s a threat: On Friday, over 5 million gallons of partially treated sewage spilled into Cape Fear River when a generator failed at Wilmington's wastewater treatment plant. Anything above 1,000 gallons is considered significant.
In a press conference on Monday, the EPA's director of land and emergency management Reggie Cheatham said a separate sewage treatment plant in Jackson, North Carolina, had also experienced a "catastrophic failure" over the weekend. There have been reports of raw sewage leaking from manholes as well, according to the EPA.
Aside from human and hog waste, industrial waste from coal could also be floating in the mixture.
A coal ash landfill owned by Duke Energy at the L.V. Sutton Power Station near Wilmington has collapsed twice already — once on Saturday and once on Monday — spilling at least 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash, about enough to fill 150 dump trucks, and sending stormwater contaminated with coal ash toxins into a nearby lake.
Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal for energy and contains high amounts of heavy metals and toxins like mercury and arsenic. In a statement to VICE News, Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Sheehan said “the releases of water and ash from the Sutton landfill have stopped and repairs are already underway.”
This isn’t the first time Duke’s coal ash pits have been an environmental hazard. In 2014, the Dan River Steam Station, also owned by Duke Energy, released 39,000 tons of coal into the Dan River near Eden, N.C., according to the EPA. Duke Energy pled guilty in 2015 to criminal violations against the Clean Water Act and was fined $25 million, the state’s largest ever fine for environmental contamination. Repairs at that site were still ongoing when Hurricane Florence hit.
The National Weather Service has stated that historic river flooding will continue for days across portions of the Carolinas. Already three North Carolina rivers, including the Neuse, Trent, and Cape Fear have flooded, with record-setting flooding expected by the end of the week.
For many residents, the worst of the environmental impacts might not come until after. “People aren’t just impacted while they are escaping through a potential mix of animal and human waste,“ Wilson said. “After the event, when they are going back to their houses, there will be a sludge of all different kinds of chemical and microbial contaminants.”
Cover: Photos of hog farms were taken by the environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance, which conducted its first overflights of some of industrial sites and agricultural operations affected by Hurricane Florence on Monday afternoon.