Though corporate farmers call them “lagoons,” I hesitate to use that word. Really, they’re cesspools: unlined open-air pits, often containing millions of gallons of hog feces and urine. North Carolina is home to the second-largest number of hogs in the country, and it hosts some 3,000 of these cesspools, their liquid colored a vivid pink. In this system, known locally as “lagoon and sprayfield,” untreated waste from these pools is sprayed onto adjacent cropland.
And there’s a lot of waste. In North Carolina’s Duplin County, the 2.2 million hogs produce twice as much manure as the waste from the entire New York City metro area — and not one ounce goes to a sewer plant. It just sits there, waiting for a catastrophe like Hurricane Florence to wreak havoc.
For storms like this one — the kind that are supposed to come once in a hundred years — my colleagues at Waterkeeper Alliance, the largest and fastest growing nonprofit solely dedicated to clean water, have developed a routine: We send team members in small planes, trading off shifts, to survey the damage. As soon as weather permitted, we began monitoring coal-ash landfills and wastewater treatment plants. I’ve been tasked with watching the swine and poultry farms, taking photos and videos.
Though the skies were rough at first, we’ve had beautiful flying weather for the past few mornings. I’m a Marine vet who did two tours in Vietnam, but the devastation I’ve witnessed here still shocks and grieves me.
We saw cesspools where the usual pink had turned a telltale brown, which meant that they’d been submerged in rising floodwaters. (The pork industry prefers “overtopped,” as if we’re dealing with whipped cream spilling over a dessert.) Others suffered massive structural damage to their walls. On Thursday morning, I saw a blowout in a lagoon wall so huge you could drive a truck through it. The untreated feces and urine, full of pathogens and chemicals, had already flowed downstream, leaving only some sludge at the bottom.
I also saw how the industrial chicken production facilities had flooded. Water had gone over the chicken barns, washing the waste from their floors down our streams. I didn’t see the corpses of animals, though I knew they were inside. In the past, the facilities used to open the doors during storms to let the animals out, but the images we collected were so horrific that the practice ended.
The pork industry claims that this slurry is basically harmless, to which I say: Well, get your bathing suit, and go for a swim. It’s highly toxic stuff. Sampling by the U.S. Geological Survey conducted after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 found dangerous levels of E. coli and Clostridium perfringens in water, even after floodwaters had receded. Hogs and humans are similar enough that their waste needs to be handled with equal care. The pathogens, viruses and bacteria that swine carry can include antibiotic-resistant strains that directly affect people. Researchers have found that North Carolina industrial livestock workers carry strains of Staphylococcus aureus associated with swine, including antibiotic-resistant strains.
When waste gets into the water, it brings a deluge of nitrogen, phosphorous, copper and other nutrients that throw the river out of balance. The damage can be immediate and dramatic. In the 1990s, the pathogen Pfiesteria filled the Neuse River with millions of dead fish, bleeding from open sores, within a few days. The water turned maroon. Massive kills like that never happened before industrial agriculture came.
After the flooding ebbs, the land here will be a mess: People will have to clean up the muck and debris and dispose of the dead animals from these facilities. We’ll be watching out for fresh graves from unsupervised burials, which risk contaminating the groundwater. But the only way a river gets clean is to clean itself — and with these industrial meat operations spreading over the floodplains, Mother Nature never gets a chance.
After the overflows come beach closures, fish kills, and contamination of shellfish beds. But while the flooded cesspools are disgusting, they’re destructive even during blue skies. Studies from eastern North Carolina have shown that lagoons at swine facilities can and do contaminate shallow groundwater with antibiotic-resistant E. coli, nitrates, and ammonia — and over one-third of these industrial animal operations are in areas where over 96 percent of residents drink well water.
Your pork, bacon, eggs and poultry aren’t as cheap as you think. Even before Florence, the neighbors of these industrial animal operations, who are disproportionately poor and people of color, suffered toxic air pollution, tainted well water, and the unbearable stench of hog manure. They’ll continue to suffer after the floodwaters recede.
If you’re white and live in a stately home, you probably don’t live anywhere near these operations. But in areas with more than 80 percent people of color, more than a quarter of the population lives within three miles of an industrial hog operation. And they pay for that proximity with their health. Even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors — and even without a hurricane — life expectancy in southeastern North Carolina communities near industrial meat growers is lower than in places without these hog operations. A recent study published in North Carolina Medical Journal found that residents near the industrial animal operations had higher rates of all-cause mortality, infant mortality, mortality from anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia, and higher rates of emergency room visits than the residents in the control group.
Since 1997, North Carolina law has banned the use of the antiquated “lagoon and sprayfield” system at any new or expanding hog operation. Environmentally superior technologies exist to handle animal waste, such as the Terra Blue technology, which separates liquid and solid waste, composting the solids. But the industry has dragged its feet on upgrading its waste management; thanks to friends of industrial agriculture in North Carolina’s legislature, such changes aren’t required by law.
Moreover, existing hog facilities are not required to move. Instead, after each hurricane, they are rebuilt and restocked, so we face the same threat in the next storm. In recent years there’s also been an explosion of new poultry facilities — huge buildings, housing millions of birds — right in the flood-zone, where the land is cheap.
We need to give farming back to people who have traditionally raised animals with a sense of stewardship. At the very least, we need to move these industrial operations out of flood-prone areas.
We know that climate change is making storms more frequent and more severe, and that the waters are rising higher, and more often. It’s crazy that we don’t smarten up and do the right thing.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.
CORRECTION: A caption in a previous version of this article said all of the hogs in a 1999 aerial shot were dead. Some were alive.