While Hurricane Florence is making a million residents of the Southeast face evacuate their homes, hog farmers are facing a much different kind of evacuation: draining the massive manure lagoons that result from high-density factory farming, before the storm floods them out.
Industrial-scale pig farms shift hog output into giant pools for management. These lagoons contain the manure and gradually compost them into fertilizer, but they’re effectively open-air waste pits, only somewhat secured against flooding. Overflowing or breached lagoons can render drinking-water supplies dangerous, cause phosphorus blooms, poison animals and agricultural land, and spread farm-related pollutants and toxins, like pesticides, fuel residue, and chemical additives. These spills kill wildlife and livestock.
Also, it smells terrible.
It’s this putrid horror that North Carolina is faced with, as Hurricane Florence barrels its way to the U.S. coast. The state has about 2,300 industrial pig farms and 9 million hogs. Those pigs and other animals produce 10 billion gallons of untreated sewage annually, according to the Environmental Working Group. North Carolina’s 100-year-flood plains still house 62 industrial hog farms and 30 chicken-raising operations, with a combined 532 manure ponds within the floodplain or within 100 feet of it, the Environmental Working Group said in a statement today.
Hurricane Florence is expected to hit as Category 3 or Category 4 storm, and could drop three feet of rain. Due to improvements, farmers say they are better prepared than they were 20 years ago when Hurricane Floyd, a Category 2 storm, hit North Carolina in 1999. Dumping almost two feet of rain in places, Floyd caused dozens of pits to overflow and lagoons walls to fail, killing more than 20,000 pigs.
Since then, hog farmers have also taken steps to reduce the manure lagoons by spraying fertilizer on fields. The state has bought out dozens of destroyed and low-lying farms following Floyd as well. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which released 12 to 18 inches of rain in some areas, the lagoons retained their integrity, though some overflowed and lagoons at one farm leaked.
If that’s not bad enough, it gets worse. North Carolina also has more than two dozen storage pits owned by Duke Energy, the state electric utility, which contain untreated coal ash. Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury, and other heavy metals and toxic compounds. But fortunately the utility has court-ordered efforts underway to empty the coal ash pits by 2029, so levels of wastewater are already lower than during previous storms.