More than a Dozen Breached Hog Waste Lagoons Found in North Carolina After Hurricane Matthew

Watchdog groups say lax regulations lead to epic water pollution from waste

By Adam Skolnick

October 21, 2016

CAFO flooding

A flooded CAFO farm in North Carolina on October 11. | Photo courtesy of Rick Dove/Waterkeeper Alliance

Even as images of the floods from Hurricane Matthew led the news nationwide, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resources claimed it had no evidence of CAFO animal farm lagoon failures, and no evidence of any lost hogs. On October 14, the North Carolina Pork Council claimed that zero waste lagoons had been breached.

But, Rick Dove, a longtime guardian of the Neuse River and member of Waterkeeper Alliance, knew differently. In the days leading up to Hurricane Matthew, as severe weather swirled and tens of thousands evacuated their homes, Dove and a pilot flew in a Cessna above the hog and poultry farms of North Carolina, taking aerial photographs to establish baseline imagery before the storm. Then, in the days following the hurricane, Waterkeeper Alliance volunteers again took to the skies and patrolled the state’s rivers to see what damage the storm had done. Altogether, volunteer watchdogs flew over 100 hours of patrols above North Carolina. The monitors found 10 hog facilities underwater and tallied 15 failed waste lagoons.

Burned in Dove’s brain were images he remembered from the last “storm of the century.” When Hurricane Floyd hammered the state in 1999, waste from the region’s thousands of factory hog farms inundated rivers and streams, and ultimately neighborhoods, along with the bloated carcasses of as many as 300,000 hogs. It was an ecological disaster, and if history repeated itself, Dove wanted it on the record.

During Hurricane Floyd, farmers set their hogs free hoping to save them. It didn’t work. Area rivers were inundated with dead pigs anyway. This time, according to Dove, it looked as if farmers had kept their animals locked inside. If that’s true, millions of chickens and thousands of hogs are likely dead and decaying, though that will be impossible to confirm until waters recede, and then only if state health inspectors are invited into the swine facilities by the contract farmers. When it comes to hog farms in North Carolina, state regulators don’t wield much legal authority, and budget shortfalls further limit their capacity.

As the rain began to fall early last week, some farmers were trying to lower the levels of their waste lagoons in an effort to ensure they would have no leaks. They sprayed open fields nearby with untreated hog waste.

“Flood warnings had already been issued,” Dove said, “and they were spraying their fields trying to get ahead of it. That’s not proper.”

In the absence of a storm, it would have been perfectly legal, of course. No state in the union has such lax regulations on hog farms as North Carolina, which is one of the reasons China has recently begun outsourcing its pork production to the eastern corner of the state, where in 10 counties there are nearly 9 million hogs, grown by contract farmers who don’t own the pigs but rather grow them on behalf of a multinational corporation.

The swine are confined in close quarters, fed and watered by machine, and when they are ready for market they are trucked to the largest pork processing plant on Earth. In exchange, contract growers earn a per-pig fee. But all that waste is the farmers’ responsibility—if it overflows from lagoons into streams or they are caught spraying waste during a storm, when winds carry the odor and the waste itself into neighborhoods nearby, the farmers pay a hefty fine.

And for good reason. Untreated hog waste, like all raw sewage, is toxic due to high concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, and airborne ammonia. When it ends up in rivers, algae blooms occur, fish die off, and it can nurture giardia, cryptosporidium, and hepatitis, which, when sucked through municipal intake systems, can infect the public water supply.

The Neuse River is especially vulnerable, Dove said. “The Neuse is like a bathtub. All this bad stuff flows down and can’t get out because it’s hemmed in by the Outer Banks. So for years and years, the river has got to deal with these nutrients, and of course there’s pathogens in there. There’s viruses, bacteria, and antibiotics.”

When a Chinese conglomerate bought Smithfield Foods three years ago, a stark truth was made plain. It’s cheaper to grow hogs in eastern North Carolina than it is in China, where environmental laws are more robust. Recently, hundreds of industrial poultry houses have cropped up, often on land already occupied by a hog operation.

“We have over 800 million chickens now, and poultry waste is every bit as problematic and pathogenic as hog waste,” Dove said.

That’s the terrain onto which Matthew descended last week, when its rains fed an otherworldly flood. Goldsboro, a small hamlet in Wade County, got the worst of it. There are over 300 CAFO hog farms and some 600 poultry barns surrounding Goldsboro, along with 229 waste lagoons, some of them covering an area the size of two football fields.

Dove compared the pinkish waste lagoons he had photographed prior to the storm to the same lagoons post-flood. Now, they were the same color as the floodwaters, their contents presumably absorbed by the whole. Meanwhile, many of the poultry barns were flooded up to the roof. “Washing out the chicken barns is like washing out lagoons; there really isn’t any difference,” Dove said.

A big part of the problem is that North Carolina’s regulatory system appears to be broken. Thanks to a cozy relationship between government and agriculture—not to mention deep budget cuts over the years—hog and poultry farmers are often left to self-report their waste levels and are only inspected once a year, if that. 

Which is why Waterkeeper’s militia of volunteers continue to patrol the airspace and waterways. When they find violations, they report them to state agencies and demand a response. That relationship can be antagonistic, but with a large part of the state underwater, government staff appeared to be welcoming Waterkeeper’s intelligence this time around. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its nonprofit partners at Rural Advancement Foundation International, is using Waterkeeper’s findings to extend relief to affected farmers. And after at first denying widespread lagoon failure, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources launched its own air patrols last weekend and essentially confirmed the extent of the damage first documented by Waterkeeper.

A department spokesperson, Marla Sink, said, “The situation is really sad.”