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After the Hurricane: Swine Waste Swirls in North Carolina

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Following Hurricane Florence, at least 132 CAFO waste lagoons had released pig waste into the environment or were at risk of doing so
  • It’s estimated that 5,500 pigs and 3.4 million chickens drowned due to Florence flooding
  • Before-and-after satellite images from the U.S. Geological Survey of a section of North Carolina coastline clearly show massive amounts of brown sludge pouring from inland waterways to the coast
  • Liquefied pig waste may sicken people and contaminate water with pathogens like salmonella, giardia and E.coli
  • Hog waste leaching or overflowing into waterways can also lead to algae overgrowth, depleting the water of oxygen and killing fish and other marine life in expansive dead zones

By Dr. Mercola

When you house nearly 10 million pigs in a coastal state like North Carolina, placing them primarily in low-lying counties near the coast, you've set the stage for inevitable environmental disaster. Yet, many are talking about the devastation caused to North Carolina's concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) by Hurricane Florence as a catastrophe, as though it came as a surprise.

History has already shown that hog waste, which amounts to 10 billion gallons annually in North Carolina alone, is not adequately contained in tidy, impenetrable "lagoons," the way Big Agriculture would have you believe.

Even under the best circumstances, the lagoons may leak, seeping millions of gallons of waste a year into neighboring soil and groundwater.1 Add in a formidable force like a hurricane, however, and the potential for leakage, overflow and runoff grows exponentially higher, if not virtually guaranteed.

With Hurricane Florence, North Carolina has already taken a heavy environmental hit, one that's been made much worse due to the overwhelming presence of CAFOs in the state.

Building CAFOs in a Hurricane-Prone Area Is Irrational and Reckless

Pigs raised in CAFOs live in enclosed buildings on slatted floors, which are painful for their feet but convenient for the farmers because the waste falls right through to the ground beneath. Occasionally it's flushed into a nearby "lagoon" for longer-term keeping until it's eventually sprayed (in far too large of quantities) onto nearby fields.

The lagoons are open to the elements and pumped full of anaerobic bacteria that help to digest the waste, and in so doing turn the lagoons a sickening bright pink color.2 When a hurricane rolls through, structural damage to the lagoon may occur, leading to breaches. Heavy rains may also cause the lagoons to overflow or they may be completely overtaken by floodwaters, adding even more noxious contamination to the already-toxic mix.

Untreated hog waste is a force to be reckoned with, especially in massive quantities. Known to pollute soil, water and air, even living near a hog CAFO increases the risk of all-cause and infant mortality, the rate of hospital admissions and the incidence of low birth weight in infants.3 It also increases death risk from conditions like anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis and septicemia.

Among North Carolina communities, the lowest life expectancy can be found among those living in the southeastern part of the state, where multiple large hog CAFOs are found. As explained in the North Carolina Medical Journal:4

"The average number of hogs per farm in North Carolina is much higher than in the areas with hog CAFOs in 2 other U.S. leaders in hog industry — the states of Iowa and Minnesota.

Because the population density in southeastern North Carolina is substantially higher than in the areas with hog CAFOs in Iowa and Minnesota, the population of the communities adjacent to hog CAFOs is much greater."

Not only is the average number of hogs per farm in Iowa and Minnesota lower than that in North Carolina CAFOs, but you'll notice that neither Iowa nor Minnesota is subject to hurricanes. To be fair, Midwest CAFOs are causing environmental havoc of their own right, but the combination of an outrageous number of hogs being raised in a populated area in a region prone to hurricanes is the perfect storm for devastation.

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At Least 132 North Carolina CAFO Lagoons Have Released Pig Waste Into the Environment

North Carolina is home to thousands of CAFO waste lagoons, and data from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality revealed that at least 132 of them had released pig waste into the environment or were at risk of doing so, The New Yorker reported.5 That count may continue to rise as more data comes in, as preliminary reports have been given by farmers, not state inspectors.6

To get an idea of just how much waste is being held in this coastal state, it amounts to 10 billion gallons of wet animal waste annually — enough to fill more than 15,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.7 That's in addition to the 2 million tons of dry waste created annually by poultry CAFOs in the state.8

The National Pork Council tried to downplay the damage, stating that solids are stored mostly at the bottom of lagoons while the liquids at the top are heavily diluted and therefore would minimize the environmental impact if they were to spill over.9

Yet, as noted by Sacoby Wilson, a professor of public health at the University of Maryland, to Vice News, "You basically have a toxic soup for people who live in close proximity to those lagoons … All of these contaminants that are in the hog lagoons, like salmonella, giardia and E.coli, can get into the waterways and infect people trying to get out."10

Not only that, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), manure from industrial agriculture is the primary source of nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways.11 Even without hurricanes causing breaches, liquefied waste from CAFO lagoons often leaches into groundwater and wells, poisoning drinking water and running 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. Such risks are again magnified if large quantities of waste enter waterways following hurricane-driven flooding or overflow.

"North Carolina gets hurricanes and floods every year," Michelle Nowlin, law professor at Duke University, told Vice News. "I question the wisdom of having a disposal method that is so vulnerable to the types of weather events that we have in this region, with potentially catastrophic effects."12 And that's putting it nicely.

Farmers Scrambled to Drain Waste Pits Ahead of the Storm — but Was It Enough?

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 waste pits covering over 6,800 acres, with many of them located near low-lying bodies of water. In addition:13

  • 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

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 (yet still spreading the waste into the environment via giant "manure cannons").

According to the North Carolina Pork Council, a minimum buffer of 19 inches is required in waste lagoons when heavy rains are expected,14 but some areas of the state received 36 inches of rain. And over a period of four days, the state was inundated with about 9 trillion gallons of water,15 leading to record flooding.

Further, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) revealed that 21 pig CAFOs received 20 or more inches of rain during the storm, which would surpass the required buffer zone. What's more, the waste that farmers sprayed onto fields ahead of the storm to create said buffers is also problematic.

Craig Cox, EWG's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, said in a news release, "These 21 factory farms are just the tip of the iceberg … Hundreds of open-air hog waste pits were hit with more rain than they were designed to handle. And the manure applied to fields as farmers rushed to empty their pits is flowing into waterways along with rainwater."16

Two 'Total Failures' Release 7.3 Million Gallons of Waste

EWG released before-and-after satellite images from the U.S. Geological Survey of a section of North Carolina coastline near Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. The "after" images clearly show massive amounts of brown sludge pouring from inland waterways to the coast.

"Not every picture is worth a thousand words, but these two are," Cox said. "Images like this and others showing swamped animal barns and flooded waste pits are a glaring reminder that letting industrial agriculture determine how and where it operates can cause serious public health and environmental damage."17

Further, as reported by The New Yorker, Cape Fear riverkeeper Kemp Burdette documented two "total failures" at hog farms in North Carolina's Duplin and Sampson counties following the storm. He, in cooperation with EWG, determined that an estimated 7.3 million gallons of waste had been released — "including decades-old sludge that Kemp described as 'the worst constituents of hog waste concentrated' — into tributaries of the South River and the Northeast Cape Fear River."18

These two failures again represent only the tip of the iceberg, and more are bound to be discovered. "There are more out there now," Burdette said. "I'm sure."19

Millions of Confined Animals Have Drowned or Starved to Death

North Carolina is home to, as Bloomberg put it, "more hogs than New York City has humans."20 More than 3,900 poultry CAFOs are also located within the state.21 The animals are kept confined indoors and stand little chance of survival against rising floodwaters.

Despite this reality, and the knowledge that many North Carolina CAFOs are in the path of hurricanes regularly, not enough has been done to prevent massive drownings from occurring.

The North Carolina Pork Council stated that farmers moved thousands of animals out of harm's way as the storm approached, but it's still estimated that 5,500 pigs and 3.4 million chickens drowned due to Florence flooding.22

One North Carolina pig farmer speaking to Newsweek contradicted the Pork Council's rhetoric, stating that most local farmers would not have the ability to relocate their animals. "Nobody would have the capacity to handle your animals," he said. "That's not really an option."23

Poultry giant Sanderson Farms, which operates 880 broiler houses in North Carolina, said it was "pleased to report that it has still received no report of serious injuries or loss of life among its employees and growers."24 The same could not be said for its chickens, however. An estimated 1.7 million of their broiler chickens "were destroyed as a result of flooding," the company said.

Equally tragic, another 30 of their CAFOs, which house about 211,000 chickens per farm, had been isolated by floodwaters so the farmers were unable to reach them with food. "Losses of live inventory could escalate if the company does not regain access to those farms," Sanderson said. In other words, another 6.3 million chickens may have slowly starved to death while farmers waited for floodwaters to recede.

In case you're wondering what's going to happen to all of those dead animals, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture states that rendering is the preferred off-site option "and results in a product of value from rendered carcasses," since those rendered animals can potentially be made into pet food.25

Monumental Disaster or Predictable Problem? Second Major Breeching of Cesspools in Two Years

This year's CAFO disaster in North Carolina at the hands of Hurricane Florence is nothing new for the state but rather something that's becoming a predictable pattern. In 2016 following Hurricane Matthew, at least 14 CAFO waste pits were flooded.

The North Carolina Pork Council stated at the time that pollution due to hog lagoon breaches by Matthew floodwaters was minimal, but aerial photographs obtained by watchdog groups showed otherwise, with multiple photos of waste lagoons leaking or subsumed by floodwaters.26

In 1999, floodwaters from Hurricane Floyd also 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, as they did again in 2018.27 The fact remains that CAFOs are notoriously bad for the environment and public health with or without hurricanes, but the facilities located in hurricane-prone areas are veritable ticking time bombs of destruction.

Elsie Herring, who lives in North Carolina one-third of a mile from a CAFO waste pit, has filed a nuisance lawsuit against pork giant Smithfield due to the odors, pests and feces contaminating their property. As she told The New Yorker:28

"They can't handle these hurricanes. Look how bad this storm was, two years after Matthew? And when Floyd came through before that, that was the 'hundred-year flood.' And we've had two more since then. Each seems to be getting worse! And they don't seem to get it."

Yet, at this time, North Carolina continues to side with the industry that is slowly destroying the state and the residents therein. A North Carolina law limits punitive damages from nuisance lawsuits aimed at CAFOs to no more than three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater.

In June 2018, North Carolina legislators also passed a law restricting future nuisance lawsuits against pig CAFOs; while those already filed will not be affected, future lawsuits will be nearly impossible for CAFO neighbors to file. For more details, be sure to check out our polluting pigs series:

Choose Grass Fed Meat, Even When You're Eating Out

What's the solution to fighting an industry like Big Ag? Hit them where it hurts the most — in their pocketbook, by refusing to give any of your food dollars to this distorted, inhumane and disastrous form of livestock rearing.

In addition to avoiding most meat from supermarkets (which primarily comes from CAFOs), remember that the meat in most restaurants is also CAFO-raised. Even if a menu claims the meat is organic or free-range, it may not be what you think, as some organics are raised on organic CAFOs, the only difference from conventional being that they're fed organic instead of GMO grains.

The term "free range" on a label or menu can also be deceptive, as there is no requirement for how large the outdoor area must be or even that it must accommodate all the animals, for example on a poultry CAFO. Therefore, even a "free range" chicken may have spent virtually all of its life indoors.

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.29

The AGA standard allows for greater transparency and conformity30 and is intended to ensure the humane treatment of animals and meet consumer expectations about grass fed meat and dairy, while being feasible for small farmers to achieve.

The AGA pastured pork standards include a forage-based diet derived from pasture, animal health and welfare, no antibiotics and no added growth hormones. Importantly, as we've seen once again in North Carolina, grass fed farms do not pose the environmental threats that CAFOs do.

They instead operate on a closed-loop system, and by urinating and defecating on the land, and being rotated regularly, the animals provide important nourishment for soil microbes — not an excess of toxic waste as is produced on CAFOs. For superior meat that does not come entangled with environmental destruction and inhumane treatment of animals, grass fed is the best way to go.