Tom Reeder, assistant secretary for the environment for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, said he has received reports of 11 hog farm waste lagoons that have been flooded, or had water rise above the lagoon walls.
Reeder said the N.C. DEQ has staff inspecting hog farms throughout the state and expects to have a full report of the damage around the end of next week. He said he has not received any reports of a breached lagoon, or a lagoon that has been structurally compromised.
Michael Mallin, a research professor with UNC-Wilmington’s Center for Marine Science, said these lagoons contain highly concentrated amounts of fecal bacteria and viruses.
“It’s a human health danger, as many people can come in contact with the water,” he said.
Mallin said flooded lagoons create the possibility of fecal waste flowing to the ocean, which could damage fish and plant life.
Smithfield Foods, which owns the world’s largest hog-processing plant in the town of Tar Heel, released a statement concerning the impact Hurricane Matthew has had on its facilities.
“We have one report of floodwaters rising into the lagoon at one of our contract farms,” the statement said. “This remains a serious, life-threatening situation, and our top priorities continue to be the safety and well-being of our employees and the care of our animals.”
Mallin said there are other alternatives to storing waste produced by hog farms — involving recycling and reducing the fecal waste — but these would be more costly.
“The practices they have now are the cheapest ones out there,” Mallin said.
Reeder said most hog farmers are aware of the importance of properly storing hog waste and make a conscious effort to follow appropriate procedures.
“What we’ve found, generally, is that a hog lagoon, properly sited and maintained, does not present that much of an increased risk to the environment,” he said.
Reeder said the damage caused by the hurricane is much less significant than Hurricane Floyd in 1999, which he said caused massive breaches in hog lagoons across the state.
“That’s why Hurricane Floyd was such a horrible thing at the time. A lot of these farms had been placed in the flood plains,” he said.
Reeder said after Hurricane Floyd, most of the farms were moved out of the flood plains, which is why the problems resulting from Hurricane Matthew are not as severe. He said the DEQ is always looking for improved waste storage and healthier environmental practices.
“I’m sure we’ll be doing that after Hurricane Matthew,” he said.