Hurricane Florence tore through North Carolina last week and left everything in its wake in shambles. Unfortunately, the devastating flooding that the storm brought has placed a lot of strain on hog lagoons, causing some to “release pig waste into the environment,” while others are “at imminent risk of doing so,” according to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. So far an estimated 110 lagoons have leaked waster or are at risk of doing so soon.
What is a pig lagoon, though? Well, when pigs on a large-scale farm defecate or urinate, the “waste falls through slatted floors into holding troughs below.” Periodically, the troughs containing the waste are flushed into a hole in the ground known as a lagoon. These lagoons contain mixtures of “water, pig excrement, and anaerobic bacteria…The bacteria digest the slurry and also give lagoons their bubble gum-pink coloration.”
Unfortunately, when enormous storms like Florence strike, pig lagoons often release their waste into the surrounding environment via flooding or structural damage. If left untreated, the waste may enter rivers, making them vulnerable to algal blooms or mass fish die-offs. That’s exactly what happened in 1999 in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd when “many animals drowned in lagoon slurry.” In Hurricane Matthew, 14 pig lagoons flooded but fortunately did not breach and spill over to the surrounding environment.
There are currently an estimated 9.7 million pigs in North Carolina that “produce 10 billion gallons of manure annually, mostly on large-scale farms and primarily in low-lying Sampson and Duplin counties.” Both Duplin and Sampson counties were hit hard by Florence.
Earlier this week, the North Carolina Pork Council said that “while most of their 2,100 hog farms were resuming normal operations, a small number of farmers have had to take extreme measures like using boats to reach their barns.” Prior to the storm, the hog farmers attempted to prepare and make more room in their lagoons “by spraying manure onto fields.”
Pig waste leaking into groundwater and the surrounding environment is a big concern because it releases excess nitrates into the groundwater supply. When this happens, it may leave individuals vulnerable to health problems, including blue baby syndrome. But why are so many lagoons still flooding over? Since they reside in areas prone to storm damage and flooding, why haven’t they been updated to withstand the effects of strong storms?
According to Alexis Andiman, an associate attorney with Earthjustice, “storm standards for big lagoons currently date from the 1960s.” Simply put, they’re outdated, though organizations such as Earthjustice are trying hard to change that. Unfortunately, however, the changes and updates won’t come soon enough. The Department of Environmental Quality estimates more reports of flooded lagoons may come in as more farmers return to their farms.