Hurricanes

Hog farms suffering and lagoons overflowing, but full extent is unknown

Posted September 19, 2018 6:45 p.m. EDT
Updated September 19, 2018 6:58 p.m. EDT

As floodwaters rise in North Carolina, hog farms become a big concern.

With lessons learned in Hurricanes Floyd and Matthew, the farmers across the state took proactive steps before Hurricane Florence made landfall late last week.

"Those farmers were pumping down all summer because we know hurricane season is coming," said Larry Wooten, president of the NC Farm Bureau.

And overall, the North Carolina Pork Council says those precautions helped reduce the impacts to the nearly 2,100 hog farms in the state. According to the Department of Environmental Quality, as of noon Wednesday, 21 lagoons had overflowed, 36 more were likely to, and 17 were inundated because of the storm.

Environmental groups have been taking flights from New Bern to check those claims. WRAL was on a flight with the group Sound Rivers Tuesday.

"I saw a number of inundated spray fields where hog waste is applied by an enormous sprinkler on the fields -- so that would wash those pollutants, basically raw sewage into the waterways," said Forrest English, a river keeper with Sound Rivers.

It can be challenging to gauge damage from the air, but English says the flights are important for showing farms that are heavily flooded and pointing out problems that could be fixed for future storms.

"When it's completely under water that means that all of that poop is being washed down stream, so it's just raw waste and fecal bacteria being washed into the waterways," he said.

Groups like Sound Rivers would like to see farmers take steps like covering the lagoons to keep rain water out and waste in.

"That's the question," Wooten said. "Who would pay for those type of retro fits? Obviously our farmers are up for technology, new types of technology, but there's a cost there and basically it gets down to are the consumers willing to pay extra."

After Hurricane Floyd in 1999, more than 300 hog lagoons in flood plains were closed.

It will be hard to measure the environmental impacts of this storm for some time.

About 5,000 pigs have died as a result of Hurricane Florence -- about twice as many as in Hurricane Matthew.

North Carolina is home to about 8.9 million hogs and the state's pork industry is estimated to add about $2.5 billion a year to the state economy.