Monday, June 24, 2024

When flooding occurs, what protects the Cape Fear from upstream contaminants?

When flooding occurs upstream, contaminants from CAFO farms often flow downstream. The Cape Fear is one of several that can suffer from these floods, with contaminants harming the environment, and even humans who come in contact with them. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
When flooding occurs upstream, contaminants from animal farms often flow downstream. The Cape Fear is one of several that can suffer from these floods, with contaminants potentially harming the environment, and even humans who come in contact with them. (Port City Daily photo / CORY MANNION)

WILMINGTON — Earlier this month, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality opened an investigation into a spill at swine farm. The farm, located along a tributary of the Trent River in Jones County, reported the waste water spill, which was found to be flowing two miles through the woods, polluting the nearby river.

In southeastern North Carolina, a spill of this nature can be potentially catastrophic. With over 100 controlled animal feeding operations (CAFOs) along tributaries of the Cape Fear, what sort of plans are in place to prevent and manage this sort of situation when a toxic spill occurs?

According to Bridget Munger, spokeswoman for the DEQ, as the regulatory agency in charge of the industry, when a incident does occur, the DEQ is the first to respond.

“Once the DEQ is aware of a spill or discharge of waste from an animal operation, staff immediately respond. They work to identify the source and to see that the source of the discharge is stopped,” Munger said. “Inspectors continue the investigation by collecting evidence such as water quality samples from the impacted water body – from the point of origin to the end point of the detectable impact.”

These investigations also include photographic evidence, field observations, audits of all farm records, and an inspection of the facility.

Munger said, when an incident does occur, it’s up to the permittee to alert authorities, as well as handling and containing the problem as quickly as possible.

These investigations are designed to mitigate the situation as soon as possible. The toxins found in this waste can be harmful to the environment, as well as any humans who may come in direct contact with it.

The Trent, much like the Cape Fear, is home to a variety of North Carolina wildlife, in addition to being a popular recreation area for boaters and kayakers. The incident in Jones County caused the DEQ to urge the public to use caution and to avoid contact with the water on what would typically be a busy holiday weekend on the river.

Flooding and the Cape Fear

Over the summer, the Cape Fear region experienced above average levels of precipitation, with over 30 inches of rain falling in areas of Pender County over the last 60 days. This leaves the ground over-saturated, meaning future precipitation may remain on the surface, which can lead to flooding.

Unfortunately, these spills from CAFOs often occur when conditions like these arise. And for residents of the Cape Fear region, this can be a problem.

Much of life in the area is based around the river, from recreational activities like boating, kayaking, and fishing, to its drinking water, which comes from an area a few miles upstream.

Swine farms store waste in pools, which, although designed to prevent accidents, have a history of overflowing during large storms due to their close proximity to some of the state’s largest watersheds, like the Cape Fear.

“Swine farm lagoons are engineered to have free board, or vertical storage, to protect the structural integrity of the embankment. In addition to structural free board (12 inches), lagoons are required to have storage equal to the rainfall from a 25-year/24-hour storm event (nominally 7 inches for most of the state),” Munger said. “Lagoons built after 1996 must have storage for a second 25-yr/24-hr storm event.

“Permittees are not allowed to let the waste levels rise into the above stated free board – otherwise it is a violation of the permit,” she added.

While his may be true, lagoons aren’t the only problem. Waste is often discharged into the air, which then settles on the ground, where it remains until it is washed away. In the past 20 years, North Carolina has suffered two 500-year floods as a result of hurricanes. Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

The Neuse River post Hurricane Matthew
Neuse River after Hurricane Matthew flooded concentrated animal feeding operations. North Carolina has experienced two 500 year floods in the past 20 years, causing pollution problems more frequently. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY AMERICAN RIVERS)

Both of these storms saw rivers across the state breach their banks, flooding farms and spreading waste into the waterways. As we progress through the peak of the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season, the DEQ must keep a close eye on the tropics.

Preventative measures

Luckily, according to Munger, there are preventative measures in place to mitigate the effects of these tropical systems. But, many of these regulations rely on the farms themselves to deal with preventing such spills on their own.

“Permit Conditions are in place that require facilities to cease all land applications approximately 24 hours prior to the onset of a tropical storm or hurricane,” she said. “The Permit Condition specifically references to the ‘watches’ and ‘warnings’ issued by the National Weather Service for the county in which the facility is located.

“Additionally, our inspection team contacts permittees in advance of storms like Irma to verify the status of facilities,” Munger said.

While these inspections are preventative in nature, Munger points to an ongoing effort by the state to purchase these lagoons, relocating the farms out of the 100 year floodplain as a result of Hurricane Floyd.

“The General Assembly acted in 2017 to once again fund a Lagoon Buy-out Program. The program, administered by the North Carolina Division of Soil and Water Conservation, provides funds to permanently close out animal waste lagoons located in the 100-year flood plain,” she said. “The program was first instituted following Hurricane Floyd, and served to close more than 100 lagoons and more than 40 swine farms in total.”

The program, supported by the N.C. Pork Council, as well as the state, would hope to eventually move one of North Carolina’s largest industries out of the dangerous areas, where they can operate in a more environmentally friendly environment.

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