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Hurricane Florence: When Climate Change Meets Bad Policy

The toxic mess amid the tragedy of Hurricane Florence lays bare the bankruptcy of GOP policies

September 17, 2018 - NC, USA - Three days after Hurricane Florence made landfall in Wilmington, NC, flood water still surrounds buildings in Trenton, N.C., on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. (Credit Image: © Casey Toth/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via ZUMA Wire)

Three days after Hurricane Florence made landfall in Wilmington, NC, flood water still surrounds buildings in Trenton, N.C., on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

© Casey Toth/Raleigh News & Observer/ZUMA

Last week, much of North Carolina’s massive hog-farm industry was underwater – by one estimate 132 hog-waste lagoons were compromised, damaged or close to overflowing (and as many as 5,500 hogs may have died, along with 3 millions chickens).

The pork industry benefits from incredibly lax regulation. “The state’s top five hog-producing counties alone produce 15.5 million tons of manure annually,” Doug Bock Clark reported in Rolling Stone earlier this year. “An analysis by the Environmental Working Group found that 160,000 people living in the region may be harmed by pig waste. And those victims are disproportionately minorities, according to studies conducted by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.”

Clark’s piece revealed that China had outsourced some of its pork production to the U.S. — it’s 50 percent cheaper to raise hogs here than in China in part because of loose environmental and business regulations. In other words, standards that Chinese companies couldn’t get away with back home, they could here. And the open-air hog-waste pits in North Carolina, many of them with no concrete or plastic liner, have long been a concern of environmental groups in the state. “What’s happening in eastern North Carolina is that poor people are literally getting shit on,” Naeema Muhammad, of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, told Bock Clark.

Kemp Burdette of the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, who took an aerial survey of the pig-farm flooding last week, tells Rolling Stone about the dangers of the deluge. “The eastern part of the state is flooding. That’s also where the hog farms are. Anybody downstream of any hog farm that’s ever been topped or breached would be potentially in the path of that waste. And no one can do a single thing about it. There’s no way to reinforce the berm once they’re totally submerged in water. There’s no way to get the waste out. There’s no way to get the sludge out. There’s absolutely nothing that anyone can do.”

The pig-waste sludge in the lagoons is particularly nasty stuff Burdette warns, loaded with bacteria like E. coli and heavy metals. “If it gets in your home, you can’t just take a hose and spray it out,” he says. “And this sewage is going to end up in homes, schools and churches, and it’s loaded with dangerous pathogens.”

Dr. Michael Mallin at the University of North Carolina Wilmington is worried about the long-term aftermath. “Harmful bacteria can linger in the mud for months, and kids and pets wading in that mud can stir that bacteria back into the water and also become exposed to pathogens,” he tells Rolling Stone. “These pathogens run the gauntlet from eye-infections to more life-threatening diseases.” Mallin says that the other danger is a massive outbreak of mold in flood-inundated houses, which he says “makes life very miserable for human beings.”

Hog farms are not the only industry to leave a toxic mess in the aftermath of Florence. The floodwaters also sent toxic coal ash into the Cape Fear River when a Duke Energy facility was breached in Wilmington. Coal ash, which is debris left over from the burning of coal in power plants, contains a laundry list of poisonous heavy metals and chemicals that have been linked to cancer and a host of diseases and ailments.

Duke Energy was fined $102 million in 2015 for a spill into the Dan River that released 39,000 tons of coal ash, polluting 70 miles or waterway. That same year, the company paid a $7 million fine for groundwater pollution at all 14 of its coal plants in the state. Despite the obvious need for careful regulation of coal-ash storage and disposal, Trump’s EPA, under the leadership of Andrew Wheeler (a former coal lobbyist), rolled back a regulation in July that, among other things, now allows states to suspend groundwater monitoring. The rollback is just one in a raft of misguided policies the Trump administration has put forward to aid the coal industry, a major emitter of climate-warming greenhouse gases.

In another misguided policy, North Carolina actually banned state officials from taking predicted sea-level rise into account in its coastal management strategy. An exhaustive 2010 report warned of sea level rise and the potential dangers from hurricanes, yet local lawmakers rejected the findings, prioritizing real-estate development in what they failed to acknowledge was a vulnerable region. Not surprisingly, this short-sighted planning happened after climate-denying Republicans gained control of the governorship and the state legislature in 2012.

North Carolina is facing a potential environmental disaster, on several fronts. Scientists and environmentalists have known the dangers for years. Yet the Trump administration and Republicans in local legislatures roll back protections. Why? The answer, as always, seems to be short-term profit. But as monster storms like Florence become more common, we will continue to see the same outcome: When climate change meets bad policy, what follows is human misery.

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