Reports emerging Thursday of dead farm animals and breached manure pits highlight a health risk that will linger long after Hurricane Matthew ’s floodwaters recede: The threat of pollution from the billions of gallons of animal waste stored at North Carolina’s loosely regulated factory farms .
The immensity of the ongoing threat to human health and the environment across a coastal plain clustered with factory farms is demonstrated by the fact that just four counties in the severely flooded lower Cape Fear River basin are home to 36.5 million farm animals, producing more than 40 billion pounds of animal waste annually, according to research by the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Our hearts go out to the tens of thousands of North Carolinians whose lives have been turned upside down by the horrible flooding ,” said Hannah Connor, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney specializing in harms caused by factory farming . “Sadly they’ve been put at additional long-term risk by the threat of pollution of their waterways and groundwater from billions of gallons of largely untreated animal waste at these industrial operations.”
This is not the first time a major storm event has exposed the risks posed by factory farms in North Carolina, which is home to the second-largest hog population in the country as well as one of its largest poultry populations.
During Hurricane Fran in 1996, 22 animal waste pits in the state were reportedly ruptured or overflowed. A major manure spill was reported following Hurricane Bonnie in 1998, and after Hurricane Floyd dumped as much as 20 inches of rain across the region in 1999, animal-waste lagoons overflowed directly into waterways and surrounding communities.
Even during more routine weather events, the unchecked growth of massive, poorly regulated factory farms has left the region’s high water table and numerous waterways at constant risk of pollution from the industrial hog and poultry production operations that rely on waste management and disposal systems that are highly susceptible to harmful runoff and spills.
The escalating environmental risks posed by poorly regulated animal waste will be highlighted in a forthcoming report from the center identifying the 10 areas across the nation where factory farms produce the greatest amounts of sewage—most of it virtually untreated.
“Unfortunately the environmental health risks posed by the billions of gallons of waste generated by factory farms won’t go away when Matthew’s floodwaters disappear,” said Connor. “Until we move toward more sustainable farming practices, and the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] takes a more realistic approach to reducing the harm these industrial operations have on animals and the environment, the risks are only going to escalate.”