Three hog waste lagoons are believed to have breached due to Hurricane Florence’s record rainfall, according to the North Carolina Pork Council. Six sites have suffered structural damage so far and nearly 130 other lagoons are overflowing or at risk of flooding.
This is almost four times the number of sites considered at risk since Monday. It is also significantly worse than the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which only resulted in a partial breach of one lagoon while 14 others were inundated.
But the full extent of the damage will likely only be known once more people are able to return to their homes and farms. Widespread flooding is still blocking many roads, making many areas inaccessible and the majority of industrial animal farms sit in very low-lying counties.
According to the latest figures released by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on Thursday afternoon, 132 lagoons are either damaged or have been significantly flooded. This means hog waste from the factory farm lagoons — uncovered holes in the ground that hold a mix of water, excrement, and anaerobic bacteria — is being released into the flood waters, risking widespread contamination.
According to the North Carolina Pork Council’s September 19 update, of the lagoons that have breached — meaning there was structural damage due to the lagoon’s banks eroding — two have lost all of their liquids while solid waste remains contained. There are no details about the third breach.
A further 30 lagoons have been so flooded the waste has overflowed, while 21 others are fully inundated by water and are at risk of overflowing. Seventy-five others have less than three inches to go before they’re flooded over.
North Carolina is known for its pork industry. The state has 9.7 million pigs, which produce 10 billion gallons of manure each year. The majority of the state’s 2,100 industrial farms sit in the low-lying counties of Sampson and Duplin, which have now each had a lagoon breach.
When the untreated waste enters the water it can lead to algal blooms and mass fish die-offs. Salmonella, giardia, and E. coli are all possible contamination risks. Excess nitrates linked to manure can also pose health risks, including blue baby syndrome. Previous contamination experienced due to Hurricane Matthew included food poisoning and skin infections. Elevated fecal coliform bacteria in the water was still found four months after the storm hit, according to DEQ analysis.
But it’s not just during storms that public health is at risk. Some 160,000 North Carolinians live within a half-mile of a pig or poultry farm. Earlier this year, residents finally settled a long-standing complaint with DEQ that alleged the state’s general permitting process for swine farms disproportionately burdened communities of color.
Many also fear that due to budget cuts, operations often aren’t inspected as frequently as some residents and environmental groups would like. There are also persistent concerns about groundwater pollution given the manure is still being stored in open-air, unlined pits.
Farmers are working with the state DEQ to manage the situation, a statement on Wednesday by the Pork Council states. For some, this means lowering the lagoon levels by transferring liquids off site using tanker trucks or piping it to nearby lagoons that have more space.
Farmers have taken “extraordinary steps” to protect their animals, the council says, including staying in the barns “for days without access to the outside world.” Meanwhile others can only access their barns by boat or helicopter.
The storm, however, has so far killed 5,500 pigs and 3.4 million chickens. The total livestock deaths due to Hurricane Florence is double that of Hurricane Matthew two years ago. Until the ultimate impact of the storm is assessed, Hurricane Floyd in 1999 remains the most devastating to the state’s agriculture industry. This storm caused 55 waste ponds to flood and killed millions of farm animals, including 100,000 pigs and hogs.