NC Lagoons Hold Billions of Gallons of Hog Feces. The Hurricane May Blast That Waste into Waterways

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In North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia, millions of residents are bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Florence, which meteorologists are warning could unleash life-threatening storm surges and historic flooding across a wide swath of the East Coast. Even if the storm weakens, experts warn Hurricane Florence could kill thousands of farm animals and trigger catastrophic waste spills from sewage treatment plants, hog waste lagoons and chicken farms. Many of the factory hog farms in North Carolina store their waste by spraying it on nearby fields and neighborhoods, or by depositing it in lagoons that can overflow during hurricanes, causing the toxic pig manure to pour into nearby waterways. We speak with Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, and Will Hendrick, staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from San Francisco, the site of the Global Climate Action Summit. In North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia, millions of residents are bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Florence, which meteorologists are warning could unleash life-threatening storm surges and historic flooding across a wide swath of the East Coast. This is North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper.

GOV. ROY COOPER: This monster of a storm is not one to ride out. When you’re looking at a storm surge of this magnitude, where the National Weather Service says that the damage is going to be unbelievable, and that they cannot emphasize that enough, we know that that’s a message that we should listen to.

AMY GOODMAN: North Carolina is preparing for the climate change-supercharged storm, six years after passing legislation prohibiting state and local agencies from making planning decisions based on the latest climate science about sea level rise. Now the state is facing the threat of a life-threatening storm surge, which could cause billions of dollars in damages.

Even if the storm weakens, experts warn Hurricane Florence could kill thousands of farm animals and trigger catastrophic waste spills from sewage treatment plants, hog waste lagoons and chicken farms. The state’s billion-dollar pork industry is primarily clustered in the eastern part of the state, directly in the line of the storm. Many of the factory hog farms in North Carolina store their waste by spraying it on nearby fields and neighborhoods or by depositing it in lagoons that can overflow during hurricanes, causing the toxic pig manure to pour into nearby waterways.

In 1999, Hurricane Floyd dropped nearly two feet of rain on North Carolina, flooding the waste lagoons and sending the waste downstream to coastal estuaries, where it boosted nitrogen and phosphorus levels and caused algae blooms and fish kills. Meanwhile, InsideClimate News has published a map showing 24 toxic coal ash containment ponds in the path of Hurricane Florence that may flood in the extreme rainfall.

For more, we’re going to North Carolina, where we’re joined by two guests. Will Hendrick is a staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance and manager of the organization’s North Carolina Pure Farms, Pure Waters campaign. And Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, where he works on protecting rivers, streams, groundwater and drinking water sources from coal ash, including after a North Carolina facility owned by Duke Energy spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in 2014.

Well, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! And I wanted to begin with Will. Will, if you could start off by talking about exactly what is happening with all of these animal corporate factory farms and what is being threatened?

WILL HENDRICK: Right now the storm is hurtling towards the epicenter of animal agriculture in North Carolina. And as you mentioned, the vast majority of these factory hog farms utilize what[s called a lagoon and spray field system to manage their waste. And in reality, even on the best day, the surrounding communities live under constant threat of an environmental catastrophe. But that threat is significantly exacerbated with the level of rainfall and the height of winds that we are expecting as a result of this storm.

And currently, although the industry is feverishly working to remove animals from the coastal plain, the waste is remaining. Many of the operators are furiously drawing down those lagoons by spraying, even in violation of their permit, after the National Weather Service has issued warnings prohibiting it. And we know, based on past experience, most recently with Matthew, that as these rainfall events result in flooding, which may take days to manifest, that the facilities are inherently threatened, especially those that are in the 100-year floodplain. And there are still 62 of these factory swine operations storing more than 200 million gallons of animal waste generated each year in the 100-year floodplain. And so the threat is significant, and it won’t solely manifest as a result of these initial impacts, but could worsen as floodwaters rise.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. She appeared on Democracy Now! last year talking about how hog waste impacts the residents of eastern North Carolina.

NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: The spray is the animal waste that comes out of the—the hogs are kept in tin metal housing. And they have slats in the floor where whatever—whenever they go to the bathroom or abort baby piglets or whatever happens with them, it falls through the slats in the floor, and it’s piped out. There are pipes running underneath the ground. And the waste is piped out into the open-air lagoon. And there are all kinds of chemicals. And this urine and fecal matter produces methane, ammonia gases, and so you can smell it. And what people say, it smells like rotten eggs, sometimes rotten collard greens or—it’s just a terrible smell. And they have been forced off of their wells, because they were seeing remnants of the waste in their well waters by the coloring and the odors coming out of their well water.

AMY GOODMAN: Naeema Muhammad, North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, is now joining us on the phone. We spoke last year when we were in North Carolina. Naeema, welcome to Democracy Now! If you can describe the situation right now and what you’re most concerned about? Are you in Greenville right now?

NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: No, I’m not. I’m en route to Greenville.

AMY GOODMAN: So in the car. Tell us about what’s happening and your concerns this year, today.

NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: OK. So, our concerns right now with this upcoming hurricane is the number of lagoons and the number of hog houses that are located in the community where people are living and unable to get out of the way of harm. If this storm comes and it’s as bad as they are predicting—we learned from Hurricane Floyd in 1999 what happens with these animals and these lagoons when we get a lot of rain and get the hurricanes. Everything is toppled over and dumped out into the environment and into the rivers and streams and just running through the communities, and so you have all this—nothing but feces and urine in the waterways, and dead animals.

If anybody could pull up the pictures from Hurricane Floyd, you would see the number of dead animals that wound up in our waterways. And to this day, we don’t—I know I don’t know, and I have been listening and wondering and looking and trying to hear: What did they do with all those animals, and how did they clean up our waterways after all that much urine and feces was dumped into it as a result of the storm? So that’s a concern that we would experience that again.

And then, but the biggest concern is the people that’s in harm’s way and unable to get out the way. And even in the counties that they’re located, there is no real infrastructure in place for moving people in disastrous situations, so the local government really don’t have the whereabouts or the means to assist and accommodate people at this point, and that is—that’s a real disaster in itself.

And, you know, as I was waiting to talk to y’all this morning, I thought about my friend Rick Dove from the Waterkeeper Alliance, how he has said so many times, “You know, they don’t have to fix this, but Mother Nature will take care of it.” And that’s exactly what we are seeing. And he was saying that long before Hurricane Floyd came. And we saw it then, we saw it at Matthew, and we will probably see it again if this storm does anything near what they said it would do.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of rain around those lagoons to create problems. And the sad part about having to deal with this stuff is that it doesn’t have to be this way. It does not have to be this way, if somebody in this state would have the backbone to make Smithfield put that superior technology on the ground, instead of bailing them out by encouraging them to attack the people that’s suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: Naeema Muhammad, I mean, you’re an environmental leader in North Carolina, with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. Has the state gotten in touch with you, because you reach out to so many people? Have they prepared appropriately?

NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: No, nobody has reached out to us at any level—not on the state, not on the local nor the federal level—to say—to ask what can they do, or, you know, “Here is what we have. This is how you can use it.” We’ve had none of that take place.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I also think people, when they hear this—I mean, this is outside the storm—what you’ve been dealing with in your communities, particularly communities of color, where you have this waste, fecal matter, sprayed into your communities. Many people will not be able to believe this. Explain how that happens and what you’ve been subjected to.

NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: OK. So what happens is you have these lagoons—and I always tell people we’re not talking about that blue lagoon that Brooke Shields was hanging out in. We’re talking about a lagoon that’s nothing but a hole that was dug in the ground, and they are housing all the urine and feces from the hogs that’s kept in those houses that they use to grow the animals.

And so, the waste is sitting out in these open-air lagoons. They have a certain level that they can reach before they stand the possibility of overflowing out of—the waste stands the possibility of overflowing out of the lagoons. And if that happens, that’s a violation. And so, in order to prevent those violations, when the lagoons begin to fill up, the contract growers then, on their operations, they then spray the waste out onto the crops around the areas as fertilizer to prevent the lagoons from overflowing.

And the problem with that is that that is just nothing but pure feces and urine that they’re irrigating into the air, and it’s making people sick. You hear people talk about how nauseated they get, throwing up. The air smells so bad, you can barely breathe. You can’t go out. You know, you don’t want to be outside. You can go outside, but you don’t want to be out there in those conditions. And, you know, so it’s just a real problem.

But, you know, as I was thinking this morning, I was like, you know, the shame of this all is that the contract grower is in a fix, as well, because Smithfield, who’s pocketing all of the money from these operations, won’t do the right thing by the people that live around these animals. They don’t do the right thing by the contract growers. And so they are in a fix and a catch-22. Smithfield owns everything—the hogs, the trucks, the feed, everything except the waste. The waste belongs to that grower, who is not being paid enough to do anything different from what they are doing.

But Smithfield is pocketing billions of dollars in profit every year and can do something about it, but they won’t, you know, because it’s just like in a capitalist society, your goal is profit over people. You don’t care about what happens to anybody else, as long as you get your dollar bill. And that’s what they’re doing, and nobody is making them do it any different, to clean up a big problem.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re referring to Smithfield Foods. I think it was—it has something like a 973,000-square-foot meat processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, reported in 2000 to be the world’s largest, processing something like 32,000 pigs a day.

NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Just drive carefully, Naeema Muhammad, as you make your way to Greenville. We’ll be in touch with you again. Thanks so much for being with us, North Carolina Environmental Justice Network leader. We’ll continue to talk about what’s happening there after this break.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the world premiere on Democracy Now! of a new song by Anti-Flag. It’s a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s classic “For What It’s Worth.” The band made the video with Everytown for Gun Safety. We’ll post the full video at democracynow.org.

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