As Hurricane Florence brings trillions of gallons of water ashore, the storm is headed straight for some of the largest concentrations of hog farms in the county. And there’s no getting around it: with those pigs, comes a lot of, er … wet waste.
Most of that excrement sits in open-air pits, known as “lagoons,” which blanket the landscape of North Carolina just inland from the coast. If flooding causes those pits to overflow or fail entirely, huge swaths of land could be contaminated with feces-laced water.
The plentiful waste pits are one of a number of environmental hazards in the path of Florence, including Superfund sites, coal plants and chemical factories.
A 2016 study by the Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance identified more than 4,000 animal waste pits in North Carolina where pig and chicken excrement is collected.
Kemp Burdette, with Cape Fear River Watch, said the runoff from animal waste is at the top of his list of concerns.
“When you have a swine lagoon breach, it is going to have catastrophic impact on the river,” Burdette said. “We are going to see serious water quality problems.”
Other hazardous locations
Meanwhile, Superfund sites – polluted areas mandated for cleanup by the Environmental Protection Agency — dot the landscape of not just North Carolina but its neighbors as well.
The EPA has already designated at least nine locations it is particularly concerned with and said it will monitor them throughout the storm and its aftermath for signs of trouble.
Agency spokesman John Konkus said regional staff have been conducting response planning, and the EPA is prepared to assist state environmental agencies as well.
Other sites such as chemical factories, coal power plants (where coal ash poses health risks) and even nuclear power facilities also sit along Florence’s projected track.
Officials have said they are taking precautions to protect sensitive sites. Duke Energy owns six nuclear plants in the hurricane’s path, and a spokesman told Reuters the Brunswick plant near Wilmington would be temporarily shut before the hurricane hit.
Federal officials have also identified at least five dams they are focusing on for the danger they would pose if they failed.
The US Army Corps of Engineers said it is monitoring two North Carolina dams — in Wake Forest and Cary — as well as three additional ones in Virginia.
Altogether there are nearly three thousand dams of various sizes in Virginia, nearly 3,500 in North Carolina and about 2,500 in South Carolina.
The danger of chemicals escaping in a storm is real: after Hurricane Harvey last year, the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas released a toxic cloud into the nearby community after being flooded and losing power, resulting in hundreds of evacuations. The company and its executives later faced criminal charges.
Runoff likely despite efforts
But it may not even be possible to safeguard the animal waste.
Roughly 10 billion gallons of wet animal waste is produced annually in North Carolina, That’s enough to fill 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. And Florence’s floodwaters are coming for some of it.
Some farmers have tried to reduce the waste in their lagoons by pumping some of it out and spraying it on their fields. But even that is unlikely to help much in a severe flood.
Soren Rundquist, Environmental Working Group’s director of spatial analysis, said if the rainfall projections hold up, the flood waters will simply take what was sprayed on the fields with them, along with what spills out of the pits.
“Everything that’s been sprayed on the fields is going to leave with the runoff anyway,” Rundquist said. “So pumping might move it from over here to over there, but it doesn’t have a practical effect.”
Meanwhile, down by Cape Fear, Burdette, who goes by the moniker “Riverkeeper,” said he was “bracing for catastrophic impact” in the wake of Florence.
He said the region could see long-term damage to its water quality from the animal waste that gets caught up in the flood. What’s more he said, there are the animals themselves: possibly thousands of dead pigs and chickens that could wind up washed into the river, bringing with them further contamination.