A few wooden support beams protruding from a roaring Neuse River was all that remained of Craven County resident Rick Dove’s dock by 3:00 p.m. Thursday. And Hurricane Florence was still over a hundred miles from shore.
“The river is really howling. She’s already claimed my dock. She’s gone,” said Dove, a former Neuse Riverkeeper and founding member of the Waterkeeper Alliance. “We’re getting hit pretty hard, but the storm is just starting.”
The category 2 storm was expected to make landfall overnight, bringing with it storm surges, torrential rain, and flooding along North Carolina’s southeastern seaboard before shifting south. But Dove’s main concern wasn’t his dock—Mother Nature has trashed that before—but rather what would happen when the storm reached the state’s highest concentration of hog farms and accompanying cesspools of pig waste.
Depending on how brutally Florence pummels eastern North Carolina, contaminated floodwaters from waste-filled hog lagoons could threaten public health and the environment if the lagoons breach or overflow. Not to mention a whole lot of pigs could die.
Most of the rain, Dove worried, will fall in hog country, the part of the state where 90 percent of the state’s nine million pigs are raised for slaughter. The animals live in crowded conditions on top of their own feces and urine, which is liquefied and stored in huge open-air ponds and later sprayed on fields (which sometimes ends up on people’s houses).
The day before, Dove spotted more than twenty hog farms spraying waste from their lagoons during a flyover of Jones, Duplin, Sampson, and Craven Counties—an effort to drain the lagoons ahead of the expected flooding. This week, the N.C. Pork Council and state officials have said that the lagoons can accommodate at least twenty-five inches of rain.
Once the storm hits, the most immediate threat will be to the pigs themselves. When Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999, thousands died after floods overtook their farms. Dove recalls watching pigs float down the Neuse River, carried away by floodwaters. He claims there were even reports of pigs being eaten by sharks out at sea.
If the power gets knocked out, the fans that ventilate the hog barns shut off. Unless the farmer has a backup generator and can activate it, ammonia and hydrogen-sulfide aerating from the pig waste coating the floor can suffocate the pigs within four hours, adds Michelle Nowlin, a Duke clinical law professor and attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.
By nightfall Thursday, nearly ninety thousand power outages were reported statewide.
Flooding could also cause the waste lagoons to fail or overflow, releasing tons of waste into the floodwaters. Nowlin is hopeful that won’t happen—many of the hog farms within the hundred-year floodplain were bought up by the state and closed nearly two decades ago, and farmers have taken precautions to secure the waste pools—but if it does contaminated flood waters could get into drinking water wells.
“The biggest concern is what happens to these communities in which the facilities are located, because they are going to be suffering the most immediate impacts in terms of not just smells, but potentially contaminated drinking water wells [from] a lot of nasty bacteria and biological materials that would be in the floodwater,” Nowlin says. “Worst-case scenario, people could get sick. That concern is heightened if there are a lot of dead animals if there is contamination of drinking water wells.”
While flash floods from heavy rain and surges are likely during the storm, Dove predicts there will be even more flooding when the stormwaters find their way back to the river, which could also drown the animals and contaminate waterways.
“We need to not be piling this number of animals with this primitive waste disposal mechanism in the coastal plain,” Nowlin says. “That’s an invitation for disaster. If the storm slows and dumps two feet of rain like some of the predictions are, I think we could be in a lot of trouble.”
Dove, who has lived on the river since 1975, says things haven’t always been this way. He didn’t used to see fish swimming downstream covered in sores from bacteria in the water. He used to swim in it, too. Not anymore.
The lights at Dove’s house began to flicker just after 4:00 p.m. as the river surged nearby. His dock had nearly completely disappeared, and the Neuse looked “more like an ocean,” he said.UPDATE: Don’t worry, guys: even though the storm is far from over and the worst inland floods are yet to come, the N.C. Pork Council says everything is fine and the media should stop listening to activists exploiting the storm for their nefarious agendas.