With one hog waste lagoon breached, North Carolina still in rescue mode

The breach poses no immediate threat to public health. Water levels are expected to keep rising.

By Monday, the center of the storm formerly known as Hurricane Florence had departed the Carolinas, leaving rain clouds and sporadic tornadoes in its wake. Over the weekend, the storm claimed as many as 23 lives (though, numbers vary widely at the moment) and dumped 34 inches of rain on eastern parts of the state.

At North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDACS), officials planned a flyover assessment of the damages for Tuesday. Preliminary reports indicated that some of the tobacco crop had been lost, and Heather Overton, assistant director of public affairs, says that inspectors would be looking at Grade A dairies and grocery stores in addition to their field assessments. “I think that most of the state is not quite in recovery mode yet,” Overton says. “They’re still in rescue mode.”

Even as the clouds start to dissipate, North Carolina rivers have not yet reached their highest levels.
On Sunday, North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper assured the public that he hadn’t heard reports of any breaches at the state’s 4,000 hog waste lagoons. But by Monday afternoon, the North Carolina Pork Council announced in a press release that one lagoon had been breached and four additional sites had been inundated. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, one lagoon was breached and 14 were flooded.

The full extent of the agricultural and environmental damage wrought by the storm remains unclear. The floodwaters washed away a portion of a coal ash landfill near Wilmington, North Carolina, causing some of the power plant byproduct to wash into nearby Lake Sutton. Three additional coal ash ponds were flooded near Goldsboro on Monday. One nuclear power plant, also outside of Wilmington, declared a state of emergency on Monday when it was cut off from the the outside world by floodwaters. The plant was stable and posed no threat to public safety. In Wilmington, waterlogged sewer systems were releasing untreated and partially treated water from manholes and overtopped sewer systems into the Cape Fear River.


Ahead of the storm, environmentalists worried that breaches at the coal ash sites, hog manure lagoons, or any of the 41 Superfund sites in Florence’s path would contaminate rivers and streams. Coal ash can contain mercury, arsenic, and lead, and hog waste can carry E. coli and salmonella bacteria. We likely won’t know the true impact of the storm on public waterways for some time.

Many poultry farms are also located in the storm’s path and therefore vulnerable to flooding. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, millions of birds drowned. The North Carolina Poultry Federation did not respond to a request for an update by press time on Monday.

The full extent of the agricultural and environmental damage wrought by the storm remains unclear.
Even as the clouds start to dissipate, North Carolina rivers have not yet reached their highest levels, NPR reports. As water from days of intense rain drains from fields and roads to streams and tributaries, winding its way toward the main waterways, river levels will continue to rise. The Cape Fear River, for instance, is expected to reach 62 feet, three feet higher than its highest level during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. That’s a problem because about 60 hog waste lagoons are located in the state’s hundred-year flood plain. Rising rivers may threaten the integrity of more lagoon walls.

In the coming days, NCDACS and environmental advocates will begin to conduct aerial surveys of the damages. The North Carolina Pork Council said it expected to release additional updates on Monday. We’ll continue to update this story as the state moves from emergency rescue into recovery.

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H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.