Hurricane Florence has created havoc in North Carolina, wreaking damage on homes, flooding whole towns, dismantling beaches and businesses, and killing at least thirty people. Yet as the floodwaters begin to recede, they are revealing the watermarks of a phenomenon that is potentially more dangerous than the storm itself–environmental contamination.

Overhead image of a flooded neighborhood
Image retrieved from https://www.doi.gov/emergency/hurricane-florence-information

North Carolina is one of the largest producers of pork, turkey, and chicken in the country. Each year, the hog farms alone produce 10 billion gallons of manure.  This manure is often stored in outdated lagoons that are at high risks of flooding during major storms. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew flooded 14 lagoons, causing manure to overflow into the floodwaters that flooded streets and basements. Yet Florence has gone even further, flooding at least 22 lagoons and drowning 3.4 million poultry birds.

As feces, excrement, and runoff mix into the floods, risk of exposure to potentially harmful substances increases. In the past, these substances have been known to cause large-scale fish death and algal blooms that smother ecosystems. For example, high levels of fecal bacteria and other contaminants and microbes were found in the aftermath of flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.[1] The problem is worsened by the fact that many of North Carolina’s rivers are used as sources of drinking water, and a significant amount of its piping dates back to the era of World War II or before. These weathered pipes are susceptible to cracking and subsequent contamination.  Many regions in North Carolina have mandated that people must boil their water.

Yet Florence has gone even further, flooding at least 22 lagoons and drowning 3.4 million poultry birds.

The state is also home to coal ash ponds, many owned by Duke Energy. The ponds store the chemical residue leftover from the coal-burning process, which contains high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium. These are highly toxic chemicals which could cause significant environmental and health concerns if leached into public water. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. Despite decades of warnings about the dangers posed by its ash ponds, Duke has been slow on its commitment to close all ponds by 2029. After a drainpipe collapsed in 2014, spilling 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan River, the company pled guilty to several violations of the Clean Water Act. Prior to the storm, Duke took measures to prevent its ponds from overflowing, such as partially covering the ponds. Yet these measures did not prevent a major slope collapse at an ash pond near Wilmington. Although Duke has allegedly been trying to clear this site of ash since 2013, the pond still spilled enough ash to fill 180 dump trucks. The ash has likely found its way into Sutton Lake, which is a recreational site, and possibly the Cape Fear River. There have been incidents at other sites as well, yet the company does not think that the flooded ponds will be a danger to public health or the environment.

Florence was also projected to put over 41 Superfund sites at risk. Superfund sites are some of the most hazardous and polluted places in the country and are often contaminated with toxic chemicals. Two located along Cape Fear are Horton Iron and Metal and Carolina Transformer Co. Together, these sites cover 12 acres of land. Other Superfund sites include centuries-old shipyards thick with years of illegal dumping.  And even non-Superfund sites could cause an environmental hazard—paper mills and pesticide manufacturers often house large amounts of toxic chemicals. If any of these places are flooded, the consequences could be disastrous.

There is no doubt: the climate is changing. And Americans are going to have to change with it.

In an era of climate change, storms like Florence are expected to increase in intensity and frequency. This puts everyone at risk. America’s dependence on meat has not only contributed to methane output and climate change, but has also produced endless amounts of waste products [2]. Toxic waste from coal plants and Superfund sites could contaminate large swaths of area during flooding events. It is estimated that 327 Superfund sites are now at risk because of the dangers of climate change, endangering the 2 million Americans who live within one mile of these sites. And in many cases, these dangerous sites are already located near or within low-income communities who lack access to advanced healthcare.

There is no doubt: the climate is changing. And Americans are going to have to change with it.

Resources:

1. Casteel, M. J., Sobsey, M. D., & Mueller, J. P. (2006). Fecal Contamination of Agricultural Soils Before and After Hurricane-Associated Flooding in North Carolina. Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part A, 41(2), 173-184. doi:10.1080/10934520500351884
2. Laestadius, L. I., Neff, R. A., Barry, C. L., & Frattaroli, S. (2013). Meat consumption and climate change: The role of non-governmental organizations. Climatic Change, 120(1-2), 25-38. doi:10.1007/s10584-013-0807-3

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