The Storm Moved on, But North Carolina’s Hog Waste Didn’t
By Emilie Karrick Surrusco
It's been nearly four months since Hurricane Florence battered the North Carolina coast, dumping 9 trillion gallons of water on the state in the span of four days. In Duplin County, home to the nation's largest concentration of industrial hog operations, the storm's deluge laid bare problems that persist in good weather and in bad.
Hurricanes are becoming more commonplace in the southeastern U.S.—since 1999, at least four hurricanes and tropical storms have brought enough precipitation to North Carolina to qualify as "100-year" storms. There is barely time to rebuild and recover before the next storm hits.
"A lot of people are still displaced, a lot of people still aren't sure what tomorrow is going to hold," said Devon Hall, co-founder of the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH) in Duplin County. "What is normalcy? When we look at the frequency of these storms now, it just keeps happening over and over again."
The flooding caused by these hurricanes exacerbates problems caused by the failure of industrial hog operations, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), to adequately store or maintain the massive amounts of waste produced by the 2.2 million hogs in Duplin County alone.
Each year, CAFOs in Duplin County produce twice as much urine and feces as the entire New York City metro area. Much of that waste is stored in thousands of hog "lagoons"—open-air pits clustered in the area hardest hit by Hurricane Florence.
When it rains too much, these poop-filled pits—which carry E. coli, salmonella, cryptosporidium, and other harmful bacteria – overflow into surrounding rivers and streams, or sustain catastrophic structural damage.
As a result of Hurricane Florence, 49 lagoons were reported to be damaged structurally, actively discharging material, or inundated with surface water, while another 60 nearly flooded, according to the state's Department of Environmental Quality.
When all this pig poop is unleashed on the surrounding environment, local residents, who are disproportionately African American, Latino or Native American, live with the consequences—which begin with contaminated drinking water.
Devon Hall, executive director of REACH, is fighting against air and water pollution from the CAFOs that surround his community. Justin Cook / Earthjustice
"People don't have drinking water," said Hall, who with REACH has been passing out bottled water since the hurricane. The organization has repeatedly run out because the demand is so high.
A recent article in the News & Observer notes that several hundred samples of private well water analyzed by the state Laboratory of Public Health showed a marked increase in E. coli after Hurricane Florence. In fact, 14.9 percent of the wells tested positive for E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria—as compared to 2 percent that tested positive in the months before the hurricane hit. Out of all 50 states, North Carolina ranks second in number of people who rely on private wells for drinking water.
None of this is new for local residents. Hall and others have been fighting for decades against air and water pollution from the CAFOs that surround them, as well as a pervading stench that forces people inside their homes.
The resulting health problems are well documented. A new Duke University study shows that people living in communities with the highest density of hog operations experienced 30 percent more deaths among patients with kidney disease, 50 percent more deaths among patients with anemia, and 130 percent more deaths among patients with sepsis, as compared to people in communities without big hog operations.
Despite the obvious health impacts, the EPA has exempted CAFOs from notifying authorities and communities when they release dangerous quantities of toxic gases. On behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance and Sierra Club, and several local environmental groups including REACH, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on Sept. 14, 2018 to force the agency to disclose public records that could shed light on this decision. Earthjustice filed another lawsuit on Sept. 28, 2018 that asks the court to reverse the exemption and force CAFOs to report toxic emissions before they sicken surrounding communities.
"Lack of transparency is a huge problem," said Alexis Andiman, an attorney with Earthjustice. "People deserve to know what they're breathing and how it could affect their health."
There are better ways for North Carolina's CAFOs to store and manage pig waste—and prepare for increasingly severe storms. As Waterkeeper Alliance staff attorney Will Hendrick contends, they could learn from the past.
"It's sadly predictable," he said. "We've seen it all before, and it's something that we should have taken steps to avoid. It's not going to get better until we make changes. The need for action increases as climate change increases the vulnerability of the coastal area to these storms."
There are two changes that the state's hog industry—dominated by Smithfield Foods, a corporation that owns roughly three-quarters of the hogs produced in North Carolina—could make to reduce pollution and get ready for future storms.
A CAFO in Warsaw, North Carolina. Justin Cook / Earthjustice
The first involves moving industrial animal operations out of the 100-year flood plain. After Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the state created a buyout program for industrial hog operations in flood-prone areas. The program was inundated with applications, and in the end, only had enough funding to buy out 45 industrial animal operations. Today, there are 123 industrial hog operations within 500 feet of the 100-year flood plain, along with 40 industrial poultry operations, according to Waterkeeper Alliance.
The state recently announced $5 million in funding for another round of buyouts, according to NC Policy Watch. However, some local residents are concerned that the program will steer taxpayer dollars toward industry-owned CAFOs, as opposed to those operated by independent contractors.
The second needed change involves the way that CAFOs store and manage waste. Currently, many industrial hog operations lower the level of waste in their lagoons by spraying it on surrounding fields.
State permits prohibit spraying more than four hours after a hurricane warning, as well as when fields are flooded or saturated with water, because the waste runs off fields into rivers when the rains come and causes contamination and pollution with dire impacts for both humans and wildlife. However, many CAFOs operators disregard this rule.
"Many CAFO operators are between a rock and a hard place," Hall explains. "They are also victims of the industry's greed."
The North Carolina Pork Council touted this practice in preparation for Hurricane Florence, saying they lowered "the levels of the lagoons to accommodate more rainwater, using the manure as fertilizer in nearby fields," even though the waste can't act as a fertilizer if its washed off the fields by rain.
Industrial pig operations operate under a waste management permit that is revised and renewed every five years. This permit has remained unchanged for almost two decades. This year could be different.
Last spring, Earthjustice—working in partnership with Yale Law School's Environmental Justice Clinic and the North Carolina-based Chambers Center for Civil Rights—settled a civil rights complaint filed in 2014 on behalf of REACH, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN), and Waterkeeper Alliance. The complaint alleged that DEQ allowed industrial swine facilities to operate with "grossly inadequate and outdated systems of controlling animal waste" resulting in an "unjustified disproportionate impact on the basis of race and national origin against African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans."
As part of the settlement, DEQ agreed to allow community members to play a greater in the development of its swine waste management permit. DEQ also agreed to update its storm standards—requiring industrial hog operations to better prepare for storms. But those new standards have yet to take effect.
Last month, Earthjustice and our partners submitted "stakeholder" comments on DEQ's latest draft permit, on behalf of REACH, NCEJN and Waterkeeper. We applauded DEQ's decision to propose stronger storm standards, in line with our civil rights settlement, and urged the agency to take additional steps to protect communities and the environment. A revised draft permit will be available for public review later this year.
Devon Hall speaks at a REACH meeting. Justin Cook / Earthjustice
Industrial pig operations, and Smithfield Foods in particular, could take advantage of promising technologies, such as removing the waste from the animals with dry scraping rather than water. This practice would reduce the amount of waste that needs to be stored in a lagoon or spread on a field, and slow the generation of toxic air pollution. Smithfield claims that "high-tech" solutions are too expensive. Instead, the corporation recently announced plans to invest in cesspool covers and digesters that will convert swine waste to energy.
Unfortunately, as Hendrick notes, covers and digesters will do nothing to prevent groundwater contamination, eliminate the noxious stench, or stop the damage caused by spraying nearby fields. What they will do is generate more revenue for Smithfield.
Earthjustice attorney Alexis Andiman, front, attends a REACH meeting. Justin Cook / Earthjustice
"Smithfield can afford multi-million dollar bonuses for their executives, they can afford multi-billion dollars in profits, they can afford to externalize pollution, but they can't afford ways to better manage their waste," said Hendrick.
In the wake of Hurricane Florence, Earthjustice will continue to work alongside Hall and other local partners to ensure that the voices of local residents are heard—even when there isn't a cloud in the sky.
"These facilities threaten people every day," said Andiman. "The lagoon-and-sprayfield system is flawed and dangerous at the best of times, and it's become a ticking time bomb with climate change. We need North Carolina to commit to stricter oversight of these facilities, so that people are safer now—and when the next hurricane hits."
Emilie has spent the past two decades as a journalist, speechwriter and communications strategist in Washington, DC. At Earthjustice, she shares the stories of the people and issues at the heart of our clean energy litigation and policy work.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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