What Happens When a Hurricane Hits a CAFO?

manure lagoons

Story at-a-glance -

  • Of North Carolina’s active CAFOs, at least 45 of them are located in 100-year and 500-year floodplains that were at risk of being flooded by streams and rivers during September 2018’s Hurricane Florence
  • CAFO waste sits in open-air lagoons, waiting to be sprayed onto neighboring fields; when excess levels of rain fall, such as is common during a hurricane, they can become flooded, leading to spillover
  • In 1999, floodwaters from Hurricane Floyd breached CAFO waste lagoons, causing the toxic sludge to flow out into waterways and agricultural fields
  • Farmers saw their crops covered in waste while rescue workers were sickened by the fumes; algae blooms flourished, killing off fish and other marine life
  • If manure lagoons fail, area residents may be faced with contaminated drinking water and polluted air

By Dr. Mercola

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are among the most notorious polluters on the planet, but when they're located in hurricane-prone areas like North Carolina, it adds another degree of potential for environmental disaster.

North Carolina is home to 1,222 CAFOs, compared to about 300 in a more land-locked state like Illinois.1 Of North Carolina's active CAFOs, at least 45 of them are located in 100-year and 500-year floodplains that were at risk of being flooded by streams and rivers during September 2018's Hurricane Florence.2

New information is still coming in daily on the devastation Hurricane Florence caused to North Carolina CAFOs, and I'll be documenting the full extent of this tragic — yet predictable and preventable — event in an upcoming article.

As you might imagine, when CAFOs raise tens of thousands of pigs or more in one facility, some churning out millions of pigs a year, waste is a major problem. There's no healthy or natural way to get rid of that much manure, which for North Carolina adds up to 10 billion gallons of wet animal waste annually — enough to fill more than 15,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.3

That's in addition to the 2 million tons of dry waste created annually by poultry CAFOs in the state.4 In the U.S., 97 percent of pigs are raised in CAFOs, many of them spending their entire lives confined to indoor pens with slatted floors. Their waste falls through the slats where it collects before being pumped into outdoor cesspools of waste, dubbed "lagoons" by the industry.

Even under the best circumstances, the waste pits are known to leak their noxious contents into nearby waterways and streams, but during a hurricane the risks become exponentially higher.

Hurricane Floodwaters Can Breach Waste Pits, Leading to Spillover

CAFO waste sits in open-air lagoons, waiting to be sprayed onto neighboring fields (and often unfortunate neighbors). But when excess levels of rain fall, such as is common during a hurricane, they can become flooded, leading to spillover.

In North Carolina, Andy Curliss, the CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council, estimated that CAFO lagoons could handle up to 25 inches of rain without a breach, but some forecasts called for as much as 40 inches of rain during Florence.5 It's not a new problem for the area but, rather, one that's been looming for decades.

In 1997, following manure spills that proved to be disastrous, North Carolina implemented a ban on the construction of new CAFOs, but the ban expired in 1997 (and loopholes allowed some CAFOs to be built even during the ban).6 In 1999, floodwaters from Hurricane Floyd breached waste lagoons, causing the toxic sludge to flow out into waterways and agricultural fields.

Farmers saw their crops covered in waste while rescue workers were sickened by the fumes. Algae blooms flourished, killing off fish and other marine life. Area residents were faced with contaminated water and millions of animals, including poultry and hogs, also drowned during the disaster.7

That same year, 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.8 Even a splash of floodwater on your face or open cut could be enough to cause infection.

In 2016, it happened again following Hurricane Matthew, when at least 14 waste pits were flooded. The North Carolina Pork Council stated at the time that pollution due to hog lagoon breaches by Hurricane Matthew floodwaters was minimal, but aerial photographs obtained by watchdog groups showed otherwise, with multiple photos of waste lagoons leaking or subsumed by floodwaters.9

Manure Cannons to Drain the Cesspool

When waste lagoons get full, the contents are sprayed via giant "cannons" onto nearby fields. It's called "fertilizer" but in reality the excess waste often leaches into groundwater and wells, poisoning drinking water, and runs off into waterways, turning once pristine bodies of water into veritable toilets.

The resulting damage includes an excess of nutrients that lead to algae overgrowth, depleting the water of oxygen and killing fish and other marine life in expansive dead zones. In the days leading up to Hurricane Florence, many CAFO farmers scrambled to pump waste from the lagoons ahead of the storm, hoping to make room for the potentially record-setting levels of rainfall.

Although theoretically this should help to contain more of the waste, when asked whether they would actually hold up in the face of heavy, hurricane-driven rain, Marlowe Vaughan of Ivy Spring Creek Farm in Goldsboro, North Carolina, told NPR, "We don't really know. I mean, we try to pump down as much as we can, but after that, it's kind of in God's hands. We're kind of at the mercy of the storm."10

In 2016, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Waterkeeper Alliance unveiled the extent of waste lagoons in North Carolina, which is the second biggest hog-farming industry, and the third in poultry production, in the U.S. Their analysis revealed more than 4,100 waste pits covering over 6,800 acres, with many of them located near low-lying bodies of water. In addition:11

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

North Carolina's Neuse and Cape Fear Rivers, which provide drinking water for 40 percent of the state's residents, have been named among the most endangered rivers in the U.S. because of the many CAFOs in the rivers' floodplains.12 EWG and the Waterkeeper Alliance revealed much of the impact of Hurricane Mathew on North Carolina CAFOs in 2016, and they plan to conduct a similar analysis for Hurricane Florence.

Soren Rundquist, EWG's director of spatial analysis, explained, "Obviously, our first concern is for people directly threatened by the storm … But by mapping the impact on CAFOs, we want to drive home the recklessness of placing densely concentrated industrial-scale livestock operations in a low-lying area regularly deluged by tropical storms."13

Even Without a Hurricane, CAFOs Are Environmental Disasters

It's not only hurricane-force winds and rain that make CAFOs so atrocious for the environment and animal welfare. Even in perfect weather, these industrial farms represent an unsustainable and environmentally catastrophic method of farming. Take the hog CAFOs, where pigs are forced to live indoors standing over their own waste.

The fumes from the urine and feces would kill the pigs, were it not for giant fans that force the toxic air outside. The air inside a CAFO is concentrated with ammonia, which is formed when microbes digest nitrogen in manure. It has a pungent odor and can lead to chemical burns, cough and chronic lung disease.

Other toxic compounds commonly released by CAFOs include hydrogen sulfide, which has a rotten egg odor and can cause inflammation of eye and respiratory tract membranes, loss of olfactory neurons and even death.14

Methane, an odorless but highly flammable greenhouse gas, is also present. In an interview with Spendid Table, author Barry Estabrook, who visited an Iowa pig CAFO while researching his book "Pig Tales," said:15

"The workers inside the barns suffer from a host of respiratory illnesses, diminished lung capacity and chronic coughing. If you have asthma to begin with, you can't work in one of those places, because you would have a seizure the minute you go in — an attack.

But you can develop asthma by working there. Even veterinarians who visit these places only occasionally have diminished lung capacity. Again, you're breathing poisonous gases."

CAFO Fumes Prove Deadly

CAFO fumes are so toxic that a father and son were killed at an Iowa pig farm while trying to repair a pump. A piece of equipment fell into the manure pit, and they were overcome by the gasses while trying to retrieve it.16

Given the fact that these fumes are regularly pumped outdoors, it's not surprising research has found that people living near Iowa CAFOs have elevated rates of respiratory symptoms compared to those not living near the industrial farms.

In North Carolina, CAFO neighbors report increased headaches, runny noses, sore throats, coughing, diarrhea and burning eyes,17 while the odors alone are also associated with tension, depression and anger.

Children living near pig CAFOs also have a higher incidence of asthma,18 and these polluting CAFOs are found most often in areas with larger African-American, Latino and Native American populations. CAFOs in North Carolina are far less likely to appear in white communities, especially those low in poverty. "This spatial pattern is generally recognized as environmental racism," researchers wrote.19

CAFOs Spread Disease

The risks of an overflowing CAFO waste lagoon are many, including not only the overgrowth of fish-killing algae but also the spread of disease. For instance, a sometimes-fatal pig virus that causes diarrhea and vomiting in pigs, the porcine deltacoronavirus (PDCoV), first identified in Hong Kong in 2012, has recently been shown to have the potential to leap to humans.20 Antibiotic-resistant disease is also common in CAFOs. Estabrook noted:21

"The people who work inside hog confinement buildings are often exposed to deadly bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics. They become resistant because these pigs are constantly fed a diet of low-level antibiotics. The germs that are resistant are the ones that survive and go on to breed."

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have even been found in the air both inside and downwind of a hog CAFO, with researchers noting, "This could pose a potential human health effect for those who work within or live in close proximity to these facilities."22 Antibiotic-resistant genes were further identified in manure from a hog CAFO as well as in groundwater 250 meters (820 feet) downstream from the lagoon.23

Another study found that people with the highest exposure to hog-CAFO manure were 38 percent more likely to contract community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and 30 percent more likely to get health care-associated MRSA.24

Level of exposure was calculated based on proximity to hog farms, the size of the farms and how much manure the farm in question used. So being in an area touched by CAFO manure-contaminated floodwater following a hurricane may be akin to stepping into a petri dish of antibiotic-resistant disease.

'Big Ag Is King'

You may be wondering how Big Agriculture can get away with all of this, but the fact is it's not only completely legal but considered "state of the art" when it comes to raising pigs.

Elsie Herring, who lives in eastern North Carolina next to a field regularly sprayed with CAFO pig manure, has said it's so bad, "You stand outside and it feels like it's raining but then you realize it isn't rain. It's animal waste. It takes your breath away. You start gagging, coughing, your pulse increases. All you can do is run for cover."25

She and other residents have gone to local, state and federal governments for help but "gotten the runaround," according to Estabrook, who pointed out the power wielded by Big Ag in states like North Carolina:26

"Politically, wherever pork is produced in large quantities, Big Ag is king. You think of states such as North Carolina, Iowa and Minnesota. Big Ag is a very, very, very powerful political force. It doesn't matter whether the politicians are Democrats, Republicans or Libertarians; they dance to the tune of Big Agriculture."

More than two dozen nuisance lawsuits have been filed against Murphy Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, alleging that the stench, filth, noise and flies from the neighboring CAFOs were ruining their quality of life.

Although the first two suits have had favorable outcomes to the plaintiffs in recent months, the damages awarded are expected to be reduced due to a North Carolina law that limits punitive damages to no more than three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater.

Further, in June 2018, North Carolina legislators passed a law restricting future nuisance lawsuits aimed at pig CAFOs. While those already filed will not be affected, future lawsuits will be nearly impossible for CAFO neighbors to file, proving once again that "Big Ag is king."

How to Find Superior Pastured Pork

Every time you buy CAFO pork (or any CAFO product), you're supporting this atrocious industry and all of their dangerous and inhumane practices. I encourage you to avoid CAFO meats and instead either buy your meat direct from a trusted grass fed farm or look for the American Grassfed Association (AGA) logo, a grass fed standards and certification for American-grown grass fed meat and dairy.27

The AGA pastured pork standards include a forage-based diet derived from pasture, animal health and welfare, no antibiotics and no added growth hormones. At the very least, if you buy pork from a supermarket, look for an antibiotic-free label, which may signal that the pig was raised in somewhat better conditions, or a certified organic label, which also means the pigs weren't fed antibiotics.

The ideal method for raising pigs, however, is on pasture, so always look for pastured pork when possible. Buying pastured pork means you're not supporting a corrupt, polluting and disease-spreading method of agriculture, and you'll also benefit from superior flavor.

"Once you've tasted well-raised pork, you really can't go back to the old stuff," Estabrook said. "I tell people it's the difference between a January tomato in a supermarket and a nice summer tomato from your garden; factory pork and well-raised pork is that different."28