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More headaches as Florence’s waters overtake toxic pits and hog lagoons

Even as skies began to clear over North Carolina on Tuesday, concern about environmental damage mounted after days of pounding rain left two dozen hog farms seeping waste, 3.4 million dead chickens and turkeys, widespread mandates to boil drinking water, and workers trying to prevent coal ash waste from leaking out of a landfill.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said Tuesday that the state had confirmed 26 deaths linked to the storm, pushing the toll to 33 lives lost in the Carolinas and Virginia. Florence had effectively washed out normal contours of life across North Carolina, with Cooper saying that more than 1,100 roads were closed Tuesday and more than 340,000 people lacked power. And, Cooper warned, “we will see more flooding.”

The state’s vast hog farms and their waste lagoons — which one environmentalist called “cesspools the size of football fields” — pose one of the greatest perils. As of noon Tuesday, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said it had received reports of floodwaters inundating or overtopping lagoons at 22 locations, leaving trails of floating excrement. Four other lagoons suffered structural damage from floodwaters, the agency said. Fifty-five were at or near their capacity.

The North Carolina Pork Council says that lagoons holding hog feces and urine are supposed to safely absorb at least 19 inches of rain and that ahead of the storm, many were prepared for more than 25 inches. But Florence dumped that much or close in some areas.

“While there are more than 3,000 active lagoons in the state that have been unaffected by the storm, we remain concerned about the potential impact of these record-shattering floods,” said Andy Curliss, chief executive of the North Carolina Pork Council.

The group added that given the widespread flooding across the eastern part of the state, “significant efforts continue in order to provide feed and care for animals and to ensure safety for farm families and employees.”

The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said Tuesday that at least 5,500 pigs had perished during Florence. But it wasn’t merely the hog industry that was struggling to assess the damage in its wake.

State officials said they had documented 3.4 million chickens and turkeys that had died as a result of the storm — a number that exceeds poultry losses during Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

Sanderson Farms, one of the nation’s largest poultry producers, estimated that about 1.7 million of its young chickens had died as a result of flooding.

An additional 30 farms housing roughly more than 6 million chickens near Lumberton, N.C., “are isolated by flood waters and the company is unable to reach those farms with feed trucks. Losses of live inventory could escalate if the company does not regain access to those farms,” Sanderson said in a statement.

Utilities that serve more than 600,000 customers issued warnings to boil water before drinking it, according to state regulators in North Carolina. The Environmental Protection Agency has said that seven publicly owned treatment works were not operating.

Rachel Noble, a professor of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said aging pipes in eastern North Carolina are hard-pressed to handle heavy rains, let alone a historic deluge. Noble said floodwaters can contaminate drinking water by entering cracks in pipes built during World War II or earlier.

“Drinking water, brushing teeth, baby bottles,” she said. “You want to boil your water before you consume it.”

Florence also did damage to the state’s coal ash disposal sites, including pits, ponds and landfills all owned by Duke Energy.

Florence poured so much rain that the wall of the landfill near Duke’s L.V. Sutton power plant and Sutton Lake failed in several places, and the special black membrane installed to contain the waste was torn open in at least two spots, according to photographs. By Saturday, Duke Energy estimated, the storm had washed away more than 2,000 cubic yards of coal waste — enough to fill more than 150 dump trucks.

A view from above shows the heavy flooding in Carolina Beach, N.C. on Sept.17, as Florence continues to impact the area. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Coal ash is what’s left over after being burned in a power plant, and it contains a variety of heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, mercury and chromium.

Duke Energy said it doesn’t think the landfill poses a risk to public health or the environment, spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said. But it also dispatched dozens of workers and contractors with heavy equipment to construct an earthen berm that would divert the mix of water and coal ash away from the lake.

Duke Energy owns all 31 coal ash disposal basins — pits and ponds — across North Carolina, even though half of the company’s 14 coal-fired power plants have been shut down and Sutton has been converted to a natural-gas-fired plant.

The disposal sites had many flaws. Initially, the company dumped coal ash in unlined, open-air pits. Wastewater was used in coal ash ponds. “The coal ash basins at the sites were built in accordance with the required standards at the time,” Duke spokesman Bill Norton said in an email, adding that they were “highly engineered structures.” Yet environmentalists said the past four disposal basins at Sutton leached metals into the lake, and from there, into the Cape Fear River. In one case, Duke paid $2.25 million and built new pipes to bring clean drinking water to a small community.

Storm evacuees are took shelter Sept. 14 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, where they hoped to keep their families and memories safe from Florence. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin, Robert Cummins/The Washington Post)

Environmentalists say the company long fought to fend off state regulation of the coal ash sites, although the company says it worked “constructively” with state regulators. But in February 2014, a Duke Energy coal ash basin flooded when a stormwater pipe cracked open, dumping 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. The company later pleaded guilty to criminal negligence.

Since then, Duke has been moving coal ash out of ponds and into landfills, but it has been slow going. Two of the coal ash pits are closed, but the rest remain. Duke says it will close all of them.

At the HF Lee power plant in Goldsboro, where more than 20 inches of rain fell, the Neuse River has flooded three coal ash disposal sites, a Duke spokeswoman said. Like many other older coal ash sites, these have been overgrown with trees. Duke plans to excavate the coal ash in the coming years.

Duke said that based on its experience, it thinks the flooded tree-covered pits would have “no measurable environmental effects,” said Sheehan, the spokeswoman.

Frank Holleman, a senior lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said his group and others remain concerned about flooding at the Lee site, at another near Lumberton, and yet another farther upstream on the Cape Fear River, near Sanford.

“My main immediate concern is that one of Duke Energy’s unlined coal ash pits will breach, spilling large quantities of coal ash into one of North Carolina’s rivers,” Holleman said in an email. “My main concern overall is that we will get through this storm, and Duke Energy and the state of North Carolina will learn nothing from it and go back to business as usual — leaving our rivers and communities at risk when the next flood or hurricane occurs.”

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.