At least two hog waste lagoons in North Carolina have been breached, two others have been damaged, and several others have overflowed and flooded due to Hurricane Florence, raising activists' concerns about health and environmental hazards.
The two lagoon breaches occurred on farms in Duplin County and Sampson County, Megan Thorpe, a spokesperson for North Carolina Environmental Quality, told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday. Two others have structural damage, but the extent is unclear.
At least 13 other swine lagoons have overflowed, nine are flooded, and around 55 are on the brink of overflowing, as of Tuesday afternoon, according to NCEQ.
The breaches were reported two days after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said that there were no reports of any issues with the state's approximately 4,000 hog waste lagoons.
"We are closely monitoring hog lagoons, and we haven’t had any reports of issues," Cooper said Sunday.
The lagoons are essentially waste pits filled with hog urine and feces, along with water.
Environmental groups have expressed concerns about "massive amounts" of pathogen-filled hog waste entering the environment from the breached lagoons.
Some of these waste pits are bigger than football fields, Daniel Estrin, an advocacy director with Waterkeeper Alliance — a nonprofit environmental group — told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday.
A breach or structural failure of the lagoon occurs when the lagoon's walls give way and are unable to hold back the hog waste.
"These lagoons are cesspools filled with hog waste that include really dangerous pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli," Estrin said.
When the lagoons breach or overflow, the hog waste mixes with stormwater, exposing people who live near the facilities or who come in contact with the floodwater to potentially serious health hazards, Estrin said.
The flowing hog waste from breached lagoons — which appears pinkish in color — could also pollute the state's rivers, streams, and waterways, elevating nitrogen and phosphorous levels, and causing toxic algae blooms and fish kills, Estrin said.
But the North Carolina Pork Council — an industry trade group — downplayed the impact of the hurricane on the hog waste lagoons in the state.
"We do not believe, based on on-farm assessments to date and industrywide surveying, that there are widespread impacts to the more than 2,100 farms with more than 3,300 anaerobic treatment lagoons in the state," the council said on Tuesday.
An inspection of the breached lagoon in Duplin County showed that "solids remained in the lagoon," the council said, adding that breaches of lagoons during hurricanes was "rare."
The council said that when floodwater inundates the lagoon, "solids are stored and remain at the bottom of the lagoon, and the liquids at the top are heavily diluted, minimizing the environmental impact."
North Carolina is one of the country's largest hog-farming states, with over 2,100 farms containing around 4,000 anaerobic treatment lagoons.
Each hog produces five to 10 times the amount of waste that a human does, Estrin said.
Hogs are housed in facilities where slats in the floor allow their waste to be washed under the building and piped into waste pits, where the waste decomposes and is then sprayed as a fertilizer for crops on nearby fields.
The state's Pork Council said that hog farmers had taken precautions to protect animals and manage their lagoons in the days leading up to the hurricane.
However, Estrin said that the state and the industry have not done enough to minimize the potential health and environmental risks of these lagoons during hurricane season.
"It's just a waste disposal system," Estrin said. "They're just dumping massive amounts of shit on the state of North Carolina."
The Pork Council has often accused environmental groups, including Waterkeeper Alliance, of raising false alarms and providing "misleading narratives" about the dangers of hog farms and waste lagoons during hurricanes.
The council said that lagoons are usually built on the highest point of the farm and have high berms on each side to protect them from rising floodwaters. Every hog farm in the state is required to maintain a minimum buffer of 19 inches to minimize the risk of overflowing, the council said, adding that many facilities have a greater capacity.
However, Florence has unleashed up to 30 inches of rain in some areas of the state.
Estrin cautioned that people who lived near hog facilities "should be very worried" about the breaching and flooding of the waste pits and urged residents not to come into contact with the stormwater.