Earlier this month, Category 4 Hurricane Matthew swept up through the warm waters of the Caribbean and along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. The storm surge and flooding left behind a death toll of nearly 1500 people.
But there’s another death toll that continues to rise and will be harder to count – that of farm animals drowned in their own enclosures or swept away by powerful floodwaters. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory announced that up to 5 million chickens and turkeys and 5,000 hogs drowned in the storm in his state alone.
If those numbers sound high, it’s because North Carolina is home to one of the highest concentrations of pork production in the world. About 2,000 hog operations are spread across the state produce 10 million hogs every year for slaughter, located mostly in five counties in the state’s southeastern corner. A typical hog house is often as large a a football field and contains around 2,000 swine, and there are often several houses on one farm.
These large hog operations, or concentrated animal farming operations (CAFOs), equal large amounts of hog waste. North Carolina’s hog operations produce two-to-five times as much waste as humans – estimate at about 10 billion gallons each year, though most pork producers decline to disclose how much pig manure they create.
Those 10 billion pounds of pig fecal matter ends up in ponds called lagoons. Lagoons are out in the open, uncovered, often causing health and economic problems for thousands of people who are unlucky enough to live within miles of them – the vast majority of whom are working class minorities.
During a massive storm like Matthew, the lagoons are at the same mercy of the elements as any other exposed body of water, and could easily be breached – a catastrophic event that has happened before, first in 1996 during Hurricane Fran, and more pointedly in 1999 during Hurricane Floyd.
After Hurricane Floyd dumped 19 inches of rain on North Carolina in 1999, floodwaters ushered 120 million gallons of hog waste into the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, Pamlico, New, and Cape Fear Rivers, exposing farm law policy flaws that allowed hog farmers to circumvent environmental concerns by building operations wherever they please with little to no oversight. The waste from the farms leached into the local water supply for several months, from October 1999 until the following spring.
After Fran, North Carolina legislature took a firmer stance on hog waste, putting a moratorium on construction of new hog lagoons. Existing operations, even those abandoned and then revived after Hurricanes Fran and Floyd, were able to continue maintaining the lagoons without additional regulations, creating the potential for similar economic and environmental consequences after Hurricane Matthew.
It’s still too early to gauge the full extent of Hurricane Matthew on farmlands, waterways, and North Carolina’s economy, but there are already conflicting reports about whether or not hog farm lagoons were breached, and to what extent.
State officials, local news outlets, and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality say none of the lagoons were breached, but photographs and reports by The Waterkeeper Alliance (in Mother Jones and on Waterkeeper Alliance’s Flickr) show possible breaches in many lagoons.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality also sent out a press release Wednesday advising people to avoid contact with Hurricane Matthew floodwaters.
“We are cautiously optimistic that North Carolina’s swine operations have survived the storm without experiencing the catastrophic damage we saw during Hurricane Floyd,” said Donald R. van der Vaart, secretary of the state environmental department.
“We will know more as floodwaters recede in the days to come but we are heartened by what we have seen so far.”
This story will be updated.
- Hurricane Matthew Killed Millions of Farm Animals in North Carolina (Mother Jones)
- Millions of chickens die in Hurricane Matthew floods: state (Reuters)
- North Carolina’s Poultry, Hog Producers Bail Out From Under Hurricane Matthew (Wall Street Journal)
- North Carolina Floods Threaten to Unlease Lagoons of Pig Poop (The Atlantic)
- Flooded North Carolina farms are likely littered with drowned livestock (Washington Post)