News: CJ Exclusives

Municipal sewage overflows from Florence dwarfed hog waste discharges

Hurricane Florence floods Interstate 40. Photo from the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Hurricane Florence floods Interstate 40. Photo from the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Municipal sewage systems jettisoned tens of millions of gallons of untreated human waste into Hurricane Florence floodwaters, dwarfing the hog manure lagoon discharges state and national media cited as public health and environmental hazards.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality issued preliminary estimates Wednesday, Oct. 10, showing municipal sanitary sewer systems disgorged 26.7 million gallons of residential sewage, and industrial and commercial wastewater during the hurricane. Another 38.2 million gallons of untreated or partially treated wastewater gushed from overwhelmed municipal wastewater treatment plants.

Those numbers will climb even higher in coming days, and figure into public policy discussions among lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper.

“We don’t have a firm number on overflow totals as we are still receiving reports, and the full volume is currently unknown,” DEQ spokeswoman Christy Simmons told Carolina Journal Friday, Oct. 12. As affected municipal public works operations return to normal, officials will be able to gather and report more complete data.

State law gives municipal wastewater and storm system 24 hours to report overflows. Nearly a month elapsed before DEQ issued preliminary estimates.

Andy Curliss, CEO of the N.C. Pork Council, is troubled by the state and, particularly, national media spotlight on the hog industry.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the amount of attention that has been devoted to hog treatment lagoons is completely distorted, and out of context,” he told CJ Friday.

“What you have here is a fairly organized set of activist groups with an agenda. They don’t like us, and so they try to find opportunities to carry out their advocacy,” he said. “There is no question that they used this storm to advance their agenda.”

There are 2,100 hog farms in North Carolina with 3,300 hog lagoons, and only three of them breached, Curliss said. DEQ said 33 lagoons had some level of overflow due to hurricane flooding. Curliss said that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 8 trillion gallons of rain that fell during the storm, the National Weather Service reported.

State Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, also criticized the news coverage, and lack of attention to the torrents of municipal waste that escaped.

DEQ said it is concerned with all types of discharges, but DEQ Secretary Michael Regan put hog lagoon discharges in perspective Sept. 28 when speaking to reporters.

“We are really focused on our wastewater treatment facilities because there are probably orders of magnitude more human waste that has escaped these wastewater treatment facilities than what has escaped these hog lagoons,” Regan said.

The General Assembly returns to special session Monday. Gov. Cooper has advanced a $1.5 billion budget request for disaster relief for consideration. It directs $75 million towards hog farms, and an equal amount for repairs and upgrades to public drinking water and wastewater systems. Republican leaders announced a $794 million disaster relief package on Saturday, but provided no details.

Cooper wants the N.C. Farmer Resiliency Fund to offer grants for voluntary hog farm buyouts through the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. State Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, is among lawmakers who have pushed for more state buyouts.

Cooper’s plan would expand access to money for relocation for farms in the 100-year floodplain to the 500-year floodplain. Grants also would pay to use more environmentally friendly technologies to convert some open manure lagoons.

Concerns about the environmental impacts of pig feces being swept out of open manure treatment lagoons sparked relocation efforts after 1999’s Hurricane Floyd socked the state.

Curliss said he had not seen any specifics of Cooper’s recommendations. Few details were included in the governor’s plan.

“Our guys are open to any and everything. Make no mistake, these farmers are innovators,” he said in respect to converting to different manure management technologies. But there is a caveat.

Insisting farmers install costly equipment which would put them out of business isn’t an option, Curliss said.

“Since Hurricane Floyd we’ve supported in concept the voluntary buyout program in the 100-year floodplain,” Curliss said. “I don’t think there’s any question that the impacts of Florence would have been more impactful … had those programs not been in place and utilized.”

A news release from the Department of Agriculture said 42 swine operations in the 100-year floodplain have been bought out in four stages with $18.7 million in Clean Water Management Trust Fund grants, and one more buyout is in the process. Of those 42 operations, 34 likely would have flooded again in Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

Cooper’s buyout option is not the only such proposal. The Agriculture Department, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is launching a fifth round of buyouts with $2.5 million in grant money available. Hog farms with a high risk of flooding can enter into permanent conservation easements.

“This is a voluntary option for swine producers in the 100-year floodplain that will enable them to reinvest in their farming operations to convert to other agricultural enterprises more compatible with flood-prone locations,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

“This program is a successful approach to reducing the number of swine operations at risk of flooding in future storm events, and gives farmers options,” Troxler said. “The swine buyout program has enjoyed great support from the industry, environmental interests, and members of the General Assembly.”

The Division of Soil and Water Conservation and the N.C. Pork Council will host question-and-answer sessions about the program in coming weeks.