[Marxism] Flooding from Hurricane Florence Threatens to Overwhelm Manure Lagoons

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 17 06:35:24 MDT 2018


The New Yorker, September 16, 2018
Flooding from Hurricane Florence Threatens to Overwhelm Manure Lagoons
By Charles Bethea

On any given day, there are about six million hogs in North Carolina. 
The vast majority of them are confined in buildings, in what are known 
as concentrated animal-feeding operations. According to research 
conducted by Mark Sobsey, a professor of environmental sciences and 
engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, farmed 
hogs, which can weigh in excess of two hundred and fifty pounds, create 
as much as ten times the fecal waste produced by humans. (The hog 
industry disputes Sobsey’s conclusion.) Other environmental groups say 
that hogs only create five times as much shit. Regardless, eastern North 
Carolina, which is being drenched to unprecedented levels by Hurricane 
Florence this week, is “literally the cesspool of the United States,” 
Rick Dove, a senior adviser to the Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit 
environmental group, told me. “You can’t describe it any other way. And 
flooding from this hurricane is making it even more obvious.”

That waste is collected in what are somewhat euphemistically called 
lagoons. The hogs defecate on slatted floors inside their confinement 
buildings and push their waste through the slats into a system that 
empties into an outdoor cesspool. “It’s an uncovered, open-air pit lined 
only with clay,” Dove said. There are about four thousand lagoons across 
the state, many near the coast. Dove lives near New Bern, North 
Carolina, on a bluff safely above the currently rising Neuse River. “The 
waste bakes in the hot summer sun every year,” he said. “It smells 
terrible. And when the lagoon fills up, they suck it out and spray it on 
fields, ostensibly as fertilizer. Though I’d debate that.” He added, 
“They’re just trying to lower that lagoon.”

Dove regularly takes airplane tours of hog farms in eastern North 
Carolina, he told me, “because it’s the easiest way to document 
waste-related violations.” From noon to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, not long 
before Florence arrived on the North Carolina coast, Dove was able to 
take a final observational flight. “I saw sludge above the surface of 
the lagoons and stuff growing on the sludge,” he said. He estimated that 
nearly one in ten farms had their waste sprayers on, distributing the 
hog excrement across soon-to-be flooded land. Other farms seemed poised 
to have their lagoons breach or overflow.

Even under normal conditions, the farms’ odor penetrates the plane, 
three thousand feet above. “We can smell the waste,” Dove told me. “It’s 
been described in court proceedings as similar to the odor of dead 
bodies. It’s the worst smell in the world. It clings to your clothes. It 
burns your eyes, burns your nose and even your lips. And these swine 
lagoons are built right in neighborhoods.” Often, Dove said, the sprayed 
overflow waste ends up on or near cars and homes. (In May, five hundred 
neighbors of North Carolina hog farms, owned by Murphy-Brown, a 
subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, won a fifty-million-dollar judgment 
against the corporation. Its hog-waste-management practices, the 
neighbors argued, adversely affected their quality of life. Agriculture 
Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters that he considered the verdict 
“despicable.”)

As the storm approached, most of the farmers who live near the 
facilities probably evacuated, Dove told me, leaving the animals behind. 
“The water will go over the confinement buildings,” he said. “Most of 
those animals are gonna drown.” As flooding worsens on the North 
Carolina coast, no one I could reach has been able to observe firsthand 
what’s happening to the hogs—or to the hog-waste lagoons. Reconnaissance 
flights have been cancelled until weather conditions improve. But area 
environmentalists, whom I reached on Friday and Saturday, are deeply 
concerned about the situation.

On Saturday morning, Matt Butler, the program director with Sound 
Rivers, was able to drive around parts of the Tar-Pamlico River Basin, 
which his group oversees. The basin’s southern edge is located about a 
hundred miles north of Wilmington. “The thirty or so farms we keep track 
of have not yet experienced inundation, as of this morning,” he told me. 
“But some were spraying waste ahead of the storm.” Butler agreed that 
the real effects of Florence on the hog farms will be seen from the air. 
“We have a very high concern that we’ll see lagoons and farms flooded 
further south, distributing waste all over the place,” he said.

Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, was born and raised in 
Wilmington. He now lives about twenty miles northwest, on the Black 
River, a flat body of water in a cypress swamp. “The human costs will be 
significant,” Burdette told me. “I mean, my house will probably be 
flooded. But the wider environmental costs will be enormous as well.” 
He, too, was most concerned about the flooding of factory farms. “The 
Black River, Northeast Cape Fear River, and the main stem of the Cape 
Fear River flow through three of the most swine-farm-concentrated 
counties, which make up the most swine-farming-dense watershed on 
earth,” he said. “There’s plenty of poultry farms, too.” He added, “It’s 
looking like a worst-case scenario here, with those rivers cresting to 
historically high levels.”

Burdette spent Thursday and Friday trying to save his home, which sits 
on stilts. “The river has started to come up,” he told me Friday night. 
“My girlfriend and I took a load of our most valuable stuff—pictures, 
kids’ art, Christmas stuff, that kind of thing—to my office, in 
Wilmington. Then we took our boat, which we’ll need in a few days to get 
out to the house, into town, too, so it wouldn’t get stranded out here.” 
They brought everything else up to the second floor of the home 
and—since flooding from Hurricane Matthew, in 2016, breached that 
floor—put it all on three-foot saw horses.“We just took bucket baths in 
the tub,” Burdette said. “We’re cooking dinner now. And we’re getting 
ready to lay down on our army cots and go to sleep here soon. The river 
is rising, though, so I’m gonna set my alarm to get up several times 
tonight to make sure it’s not rising too fast.”

Tom Butler (no relation to Matt) runs a factory farm a hundred and ten 
miles northwest of Wilmington, with about eight thousand hogs. “It’s a 
medium-sized farm,” he told me on Saturday afternoon. “We have about a 
hundred thousand contract hogs in my county, while the next county over, 
Sampson, has two million. I’ve had a concentrated animal-feeding 
operation here for twenty-three years. I’m familiar with bad weather and 
lagoons.” So far, he’s had about eight or nine inches of rain fall on 
his farm. But he’s taken precautions that, he says, most other hog 
farmers don’t. “I’m an advocate for better waste management,” he said, 
“and have been for ten years. The industry doesn’t like me very much. We 
have high-density-plastic covers for our lagoons—only about seven or 
eight farms out of two thousand in North Carolina do that—which excludes 
the rainwater and prevents inundation or whatever. As far as hog 
protection, we just lower the curtains to keep off the wind. We cut off 
the feeders so the feed won’t get wet. We stay with that mode until the 
wind and rain goes by.”

Butler went on, “We have no idea what’s gonna happen with the residual 
flooding from this storm. Most folks are just praying, as far as 
controlling the lagoon problem. Even if a grower had his lagoons pumped 
down to the regulatory amount of nineteen inches, it would still 
overflow when you have twenty to thirty inches of rain predicted. That 
amount of rain is a real problem. Fifteen inches many can get by with. 
Twenty inches is a real problem.”



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