The nearly 10 million pigs housed in hog farms across North Carolina produce roughly 10 billion gallons of manure per year, and as Sarah Sax notes for Vice News, much of this waste eventually lands in the state’s more than 3,300 “hog lagoons.” According to Vox’s Umair Irfan, the clay-lined anaerobic pits measure around eight feet deep and are filled with bacteria that transform excrement into fertilizer. When functioning properly, the lagoons provide a vital remedy for the issue of hog waste. But faced with rising floodwaters that threaten to top their 19-inch absorption limit, the open-air pits could pose a significant environmental and health hazard. And Hurricane Florence just delivered a walloping 50 inches of rain to certain areas.
As of noon on Wednesday, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality had identified 21 flooded lagoons actively releasing pig urine and feces into the environment and an additional 89 at imminent risk of releasing waste due to structural damage or water overflow. These numbers were up from an estimated 34 lagoons cited as at-risk on Monday, Kendra Pierre-Louis writes for The New York Times.
“You basically have a toxic soup for people who live in close proximity to those lagoons,” public University of Maryland public health specialist Sacoby Wilson tells Vice News. “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.”
According to The New York Times’ Pierre-Louise, excess nitrates generated by pig manure mixing with groundwater may contribute to the so-called blue baby syndrome, which limits infants’ oxygen supply and gives their skin a bluish tint. Experts are also concerned that Florence could produce damage similar to that wrought by the 1999 storm Hurricane Floyd, which contaminated North Carolina’s waterways, drowned animals and produced harmful algal blooms.
Vox’s Irfan notes that some environmental activists are citing Floyd in their criticism of the state’s preparation for Florence.
“North Carolina gets hurricanes and floods every year,” Duke University law expert Michelle Nowlin tells Vice News. “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.”
The North Carolina Pork Council (NCPC) argues, however, that in the years following Floyd, the hog industry has taken “significant steps” to minimize the threat of flooding, even closing 334 lagoons located on flood plains. In a September 17 advisory, the NCPC noted that the 2016 storm Hurricane Matthew left more than 99.5 percent of the state’s active lagoons unaffected, and in a September 19 statement, the organization added, “While we are dismayed by the release of some liquids from some lagoons, we also understand that what has been released from the farms is the result of a once-in-a-lifetime storm and that the contents are highly diluted with rainwater.”
According to the same statement, local farmers are mitigating the risk of overflow by transferring liquids from at-risk lagoons to tanker trucks or lagoons with “ample capacity.”
The majority of North Carolina’s 2,100 hog farms are located in the southern counties of Sampson and Duplin, which were heavily affected by Florence’s torrential downpour and, according to Vox’s Irfan, are amongst the poorest in the state.
Pierre-Louis reports that locals have long protested the region’s large-scale hog farming, which they say has a detrimental effect on their health and well-being. A Duke University study newly published in the North Carolina Medical Journal offers support for these claims, noting that those living near concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) exhibit higher death rates from a variety of causes than individuals living further away from hog farms.
“Life expectancy in North Carolina communities near hog CAFOs remains low, even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors that are known to affect people’s health and lifespan,” senior author H. Kim Lyerly said in a statement.
The authors are quick to point out that their research doesn’t definitively link a lower life expectancy to the presence of hog farms, but they maintain that further assessment of health risks should be conducted.
As lead author Julia Kravchenko concludes, “Poor health outcomes in North Carolina communities adjacent to hog CAFOs may need to be addressed by improving access to medical resources, including disease screenings and early diagnosis, and interventions for conditions that affect infant mortality and low birth weight.”