by Ken Fine and Erica Hellerstein

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part investigation into North Carolina’s hog-farming industry. The first story (available at triad-city-beat.com) examined claims by lower-income African-American residents of eastern North Carolina that neighboring hog farms have polluted their properties, and efforts by lawmakers to shield pork producers from litigation. This story looks at the environmental impact hog farming has had over the last two decades, particularly on waterways such as the Neuse River. The final piece will discuss ways to make the multibillion-dollar hog industry more sustainable, both for the environment and the state’s rural population, and the political and financial reasons those steps have not been taken.
— Jeffrey Billman, editor of
Indy Week

PART TWO: THE FLOOD

I. ‘Mother Nature will strike back’
On Sept. 16, 1999, Hurricane Floyd, a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 110 mph and a storm surge of nearly 10 feet, made landfall at Cape Fear. Between 15 and 20 inches of rain pummeled eastern North Carolina. Forty-eight people died. Thousands more were displaced.

To make matters worse, just a few weeks earlier, Hurricane Dennis had brought heavy rains to the region. By the time Floyd hit, nearly every river basin in the eastern part of the state exceeded 500-year flood levels. In the end, Floyd caused nearly $7 billion in damage.

The torrential downpour unleashed something else, too: When the floodwaters saturated miles of North Carolina’s farmland, they swallowed many of the farm animals that made their homes in those fields. Tens of thousands of hogs and chickens drowned, and millions of gallons of waste — a mixture of feces, urine, blood and other fluids housed in lagoons — merged with the swollen Neuse River and its tributaries.

When those floodwaters receded and soaked into the ground, they took the contents of those lagoons with them. The pollutants entered the Neuse River basin, a waterway that begins its eastward path in Durham and feeds into the Pamlico Sound, the nation’s second-largest estuarine complex. The sound is so vast — 80 miles long and 20 miles wide — that, in 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano mistook it for the Pacific Ocean. Today it provides an estimated 90 percent of the state’s commercial fish and shellfish catches, an industry worth nearly $100 million annually.

Floyd put all that in jeopardy. Nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals found in the waste sat dormant in the Neuse and the sound it feeds. Months later, rising water temperatures activated the growth of algae blooms. During their ultimate decomposition, those blooms sucked the oxygen out of the water below, and hundreds of thousands of fish washed up dead on riverbanks.

These events prompted the legislature to authorize the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which allocated $18.7 million for the voluntary buyouts of hog and chicken farms located inside the Neuse’s floodplain. But while 43 farmers shut down — representing at least 60,000 hogs and more than 100 lagoons, according to state records — 62 farms remained, housing more than 250,000 hogs and nearly 2 million chickens.

Scientists and clean-water advocates have long worried that a sequel to Floyd could once again devastate eastern North Carolina.

“I live on the Neuse River, and I’ve seen the fish die in this river,” says former Neuse Riverkeeper Rick Dove. “We’ve lost over a billion [fish] in this river due to pollution. There’s no river in the US that has suffered more fish kills than the Neuse. And let me tell you something; the laws of nature are far more powerful than the laws of men. And when you abuse nature over a long period of time, she’s very forgiving and she’s healing, but if you continue to pollute and desecrate and violate the laws of nature, she will strike back with something to stop you.”

Last fall, she struck back.

neuse river
A view of the Neuse River in Goldsboro, NC on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.

Hurricane Matthew, a Category 1 storm that rotated over North Carolina for more than 12 hours, washed out entire towns, uprooted centuries-old trees and destroyed businesses. According to the NC Pork Council, 14 waste lagoons flooded. When those waters receded, they took the contents of those lagoons with them, clean-water advocates say. What didn’t end up in the river soaked into the ground. And when water temperatures rise this summer, they argue, that waste could reveal itself in the form of fish-killing algae that has the potential to damage the state’s seafood industry.

“We don’t even know what the summer will bring,” Dove says. “But I think it’s safe to say it’s going to be another wake-up call.”

II. ‘A goodly river called Neuse’
For thousands of years, the Neuse River — which snakes more than 275 miles across North Carolina — provided fresh water and food to the indigenous people who called eastern North Carolina home. It remained unknown to English speakers until 1585, when a pair of explorers commissioned by Sir Walter Raleigh wrote about their escapades along “a goodly river called Neuse.”

Its recent history has been problematic. Even before Floyd, scientists say, the estuary fed by the Neuse was gasping for air.

“It seems like [the Pamlico Sound] in the summer is always on the cusp of becoming hypoxic,” says Travis Graves, who recently retired as the Lower Neuse riverkeeper. “It’s always struggling for oxygen.”

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