Hurricane Floodwaters Cause CAFO Waste Lagoons to Overflow


Story at-a-glance -

  • U.S. CAFOs produce 500 million tons of manure annually, which is three times the amount of sewage produced by humans
  • Much of the waste is stored in open-air “lagoons” that may be breached by floodwaters from hurricanes
  • North Carolina waste lagoons have overflowed due to hurricanes repeatedly; in 1996 following Hurricane Fran, in 1998 following Hurricane Bonnie, in 1999 following Hurricane Floyd and in 2016 following Hurricane Matthew

By Dr. Mercola

While pig farms exist in virtually all U.S. states, pig concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are heavily concentrated in a handful of states, namely Iowa, North Carolina, Minnesota and Illinois.1

Of these, North Carolina faces a unique threat that the others don't: hurricanes. Some CAFOs treat animal feces in open-air lagoons and dispose of the waste by spraying it onto nearby fields.

The creation of new CAFO lagoons, and the spray systems, were banned in 2007, but older farms were allowed to continue their use. The term "lagoon" is a misnomer, by the way.

Cesspool would be more accurate, as CAFOs do not treat the animal feces in any way. They simply add it to the often-unlined lagoons until they figure out where they can spray it.

In the meantime, the liquefied waste often leaches into groundwater and wells, poisoning drinking water. When it's sprayed onto fields, it often runs off into waterways, where the excess nutrients lead to algae overgrowth that depletes the water of oxygen and kills fish and other marine life.2

Manure from farms is often considered to be an innocuous, even healthy, form of "waste" that can be used to fertilize fields. It can be, but only when it's produced in amounts that can be safely used — and when it's not contaminated with antibiotics and pathogens, like most CAFO manure is.

U.S. CAFOs produce 500 million tons of manure annually, which is three times the amount of sewage produced by humans.3 This is far more manure than can be safely applied to farm fields and represents a top source of pollution in the U.S. — which brings us back to hurricanes.

Hurricane Floodwaters May Cause Toxic CAFO Lagoons to Overflow

North Carolina is the second biggest pork-producing state, and the third-largest chicken producer in the U.S., which means it's home to more pig and chicken CAFOs than average. This, combined with the area's proximity to the coast, makes it an environmental nightmare in the making.

Floodwaters from hurricanes can cause the already dangerous lagoons (which emit toxic fumes and often leach toxins into groundwater) to overflow, allowing tons of untreated animal feces to flood the area.

This isn't only theoretical; it's already happened in 1996 following Hurricane Fran, in 1998 following Hurricane Bonnie, in 1999 following Hurricane Floyd, practically every year in many locations — and this year following Hurricane Matthew.

While the North Carolina Pork Council continues to state that pollution due to hog lagoon breaches by Hurricane Matthew floodwaters has been minimal, aerial photographs obtained by watchdog group Waterkeeper Alliance suggest otherwise. According to Mother Jones:4

“ … [T]he Waterkeeper Alliance published aerial photos of hog farms depicting a grim scene — massive cesspools, known by the industry as lagoons, leaking into floodwater or just completely subsumed.”

CAFO Animals Drown by the Millions in Confinement, Floodwaters Pose Infection Risk

Sadly, many chickens and pigs also drown in confinement when flooding occurs, since many of the CAFOs are placed in flood-prone areas.

After Hurricane Floyd, 3 million chickens and turkeys and more than 3,000 hogs drowned,5 and at least 1.8 million turkeys and chickens have been reported drowned due to Hurricane Matthew, likely while still in their cages.6

Aside from the ethical ramifications, there is also the added issue of how to dispose of millions of decaying and likely disease-ridden chicken carcasses.

The state bought out some of them after Hurricane Floyd in order to prevent the catastrophic lagoon flooding that occurred from happening again but many still remain.

The year of Hurricane Floyd, eastern North Carolina experienced a "large increase" in visits to health services for intestinal infections in counties with high concentrations of pig farming that were affected by the hurricane.7 Even a splash of floodwater on your face or open cut could be enough to cause infection.

Travis Graves of the environmental nonprofit Sound Rivers told The Atlantic, "We've literally got hundreds of lagoons on the eastern coastal plan." They continued, "The southeastern corner of North Carolina, where pig farms are concentrated, is unfortunately also the area hit hardest in the latest hurricane."8

It's unclear how extensive the pig-waste lagoon breaches will be due to Hurricane Matthew's historic floodwaters. Local news agencies doing flyovers in the region reported seeing at least 100 hog waste lagoons at or near capacity, and at least one with hog waste overflowing into adjacent fields.

Farmers were also witnessed spraying hog waste onto fields, which is illegal to do when a flood watch is in effect because the waste may runoff and contaminate nearby surface water.9

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We're Talking About 15,000 Olympic Pools' Worth of Waste

It's hard to imagine the magnitude of waste being produced by North Carolina CAFOs, but this may help — the state's pig CAFOs alone produce nearly 10 billion gallons of fecal waste annually, which is enough to fill more than 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, according to an analysis of maps and data of the state's CAFOs by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).10

The fact that other states where CAFOs are located may not be prone to hurricanes does not make them less dangerous — they, too, pollute their surrounding environments. However, hurricanes have the potential to quickly detonate what is an already ticking time bomb.

In addition, EWG found that poultry operations in North Carolina produce more than 2 million tons of dry animal waste annually. The wet animal waste is often applied to croplands as "fertilizer" or dumped into waste lagoons. Of the state's more than 4,100 waste pits, EWG found that:

  • 37 were located within one-half mile of a school
  • 288 within one-half mile of a church
  • 136 within one-half mile of a public water well
  • 170 within the state's 100-year floodplain

Catastrophic Flooding Could Become Increasingly Common

In addition to risks from CAFO waste, North Carolina is also threatened by toxic coal ash, which is a byproduct of burning coal for power. The ash contains arsenic, mercury, lead and other heavy metals and, like CAFO waste, is often stored in unlined storage ponds.

The pits often leach into groundwater and if flooded can send the toxins into drinking water supplies. Catastrophic flooding from hurricanes has increased significantly over the last 200 years, and one study suggested, “It is very likely to increase more sharply over the 21st century.”11

What this means is that regulators should be taking steps to clean up waste storage in flood-prone areas to make up for what Graves described as the culmination of "decades of bad policy,"12 but this isn't happening. Graves told Think Progress:13

"Advocates in North Carolina have been working for years, sometimes decades, trying to get the coal ash cleaned up, trying to get these antiquated waste lagoon systems replaced with better alternative technologies [which] are available but unfortunately the legislature has been very kind to industrial meat production in North Carolina and very kind to coal-fired power generation."

Make a Difference With Your Next Meal

I encourage you to support the small family farms in your area, particularly local organic farms that respect the laws of nature and use the relationships between animals, plants, insects, soil, water and habitat to create synergistic, self-supporting, non-polluting and GMO-free ecosystems.

Whereas industrial agriculturists want to hide their practices from you, traditional farmers will welcome you onto their land, as they have nothing to hide. The differences in farming practices, and their effects on the environment, are immense. As Civil Eats reported:14

"In the 1970s, family farmers raised an average of 60-some hogs per location and let the animals roam around outside, using their waste as crop fertilizer. In the 1980s and '90s, as contract hog growing expanded and the industry consolidated, individual farms became much larger. Today's farms house an average of 4,000+ animals each."

Bigger is not better when it comes to food production — not for the animals, the environment or the future of food. So make a point to support those who are still farming using sustainable, humane and earth-friendly practices.

You can do this not only by visiting the farm directly, if you have one nearby, but also by taking part in farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs. The following organizations can also help you locate farm-fresh foods in your local area, raised in a humane, sustainable manner.

Where to Buy Locally Grown Food Infographic

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