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Something New to Worry About: Hog Feces and Coal Ash

Climate change is here, and the effects of hurricanes and tropical storms are devastating

Hog farm buildings are inundated with floodwater from Hurricane Florence near Trenton, N.CTropical Weather North Carolina, Trenton, USA - 16 Sep 2018

Hog farm buildings are inundated with floodwater from Hurricane Florence near Trenton, N.C.

Steve Helber/AP/REX Shutterstock

A week after Hurricane Florence made landfall on the Carolina coast, officials are still unable to take stock of the potential environmental damage in the hardest-hit areas because of unsafe travel conditions, the AP reports.

“Water is still rising, flooding is widespread, and lives are still in danger,” a regional EPA administrator said. “The government’s first responsibility is to protect lives and the health of the citizens impacted.”

When the worst rainstorm in East Coast history finally winds down and the waters recede, some of the principal health concerns will be the toxins released into floodwaters from the likes of breached hog farms, sewage facilities and power plants.  

According to the AP, at least five hog lagoons have sustained structural damage, 17 were flooded by nearby rivers, and 21 have overflowed. North Carolina is the second-biggest hog-farming state in the country and home to nearly 10 million hogs. Their manure is stored in thousands of open-air lagoons, filled with contaminants like salmonella and E. coli. 

Even before flooding, the lagoons have been a hazard for nearby residents. To help prevent overflow, farms spray the manure out as fertilizer, which then coats area homes. “What’s happening in eastern North Carolina is that poor people are literally getting shit on,” the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network told Rolling Stone last year in a profile of rural Duplin County, where hogs outnumber humans 30 to 1.

Elsewhere in eastern North Carolina during the hurricane, five million tons of partially treated sewage poured into the Cape Fear River after a power failure at a treatment facility. And over the weekend, the equivalent of 180 dump-truck-loads of coal ash  — a byproduct of coal power plants containing carcinogens like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which can be toxic even in small doses — spilled from a Duke Energy-operated facility in Wilmington after a wall collapsed due to flooding.

The coal ash spill reached nearby Lake Sutton, a popular fishing destination. A spokesperson for Duke Energy told reporters they’ve been water-testing the lake as well nearby Cape Fear River and saw “no evidence of coal ash impact.” State environmental regulators have yet to get the results of their own testing.  

Trump’s EPA recently weakened a regulation on the storage of coal ash. It was one of the first acts by EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler (who spent many years as a coal lobbyist) upon taking office in July. Among other changes, Wheeler’s weakened rule allows states to suspend groundwater monitoring. It was a major spill in North Carolina that spurred the 2015 storage regulation in the first place, after a pipe burst at a Duke Energy plant in Eden, releasing 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, contaminating 70 miles of waterway. Duke was fined $102 million for the spill. In 2015, the company also paid a $7 million fine for groundwater pollution at all 14 of its coal plants in the state.

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