Hog manure is escaping from 30 waste lagoons in North Carolina

Hogs wait for rescue after Hurricane Floyd swept through the state in 1999.
Hogs wait for rescue after Hurricane Floyd swept through the state in 1999.
Image: Reuters
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This story was updated Sept 20 at 3:20pm with latest hog lagoon failure numbers.

The poop has left the pen.

Rain from Hurricane Florence has flooded 30 pig-manure lagoons in North Carolina, causing waste to escape the earthen pond-like structures, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality said today (Sept. 20). Another 21 waste lagoons have floodwaters flowing into them and mixing with the manure. A total of 75 lagoons are full or nearly full, threatening to overflow soon, and rain and flooding have caused structural damage to six of the lagoons.

North Carolina is one of the biggest hog-farming states in the US—second only to Iowa—and its two biggest hog-farming counties were directly in the path of the storm. Its 9.7 million pigs live on some 2,100 hog farms and generate a lot of manure: About 10 billion pounds of wet animal waste are produced in the state a year.

Hog farmers store the waste in uncovered, earthen lagoons, some the size of Olympic pools. The waste is sprayed on crop fields as fertilizer.

Flooding from Florence is far from over. It is already the worst rainstorm to hit the East Coast of the US in recorded history, and streams and rivers are expected to continue swelling for days.

“While there are more than 3,000 active lagoons in the state that have been unaffected by the storm, we remain concerned about the potential impact of these record-shattering floods,” the North Carolina Pork Council, an industry group, said.

The escaped waste poses a public health risk, experts warned.

“You basically have a toxic soup for people who live in close proximity to those lagoons,” Sacoby Wilson, a professor of public health at the University of Maryland, told Vice News. “All of these contaminants that are in the hog lagoons, like salmonella, giardia, and E. coli, can get into the waterways and infect people trying to get out.”

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew inundated 14 hog-manure lagoons. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd flooded “dozens” of hog lagoons and caused half a dozen of their containing walls to fail. The waste that escaped eventually wound up in estuaries, and was blamed for algae blooms and fish kills.

Millions of animals left on farms in North Carolina during Florence’s record-breaking rainfall have drowned in the flooding. As of Tuesday (Sept. 18), the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which has been counting livestock deaths in the field, says 3.4 million chickens and turkeys have died so far, along with 5,500 pigs.