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Getting Sloppy: Hurricane Florence was responsible for the deaths of 35 people in North Carolina as of Tuesday, and in addition to the extensive damage to roads, homes and other structures, the Tar Heel State may have to confront a nasty environmental disaster of its own making. North Carolina is the country’s second biggest pig producer behind Iowa, and Florence’s torrential downpours flooded the massive slop pools at farms that hold hog waste. The state reported that at least 50 hog lagoons overflowed during Florence and two failed entirely, dumping 7 million gallons of untreated swine feces into surrounding waterways.
Health Hazard: If waste enters rivers, streams and groundwater, that could lead to spikes in nitrate levels, algae blooms, and the death of fish and wildlife. Nitrates in groundwater can also cause blue baby syndrome, when excess nitrogen restricts the ability of the baby’s blood to carry oxygen, which can turn an infant’s skin blue. In the past, farms have been fined for illegally dumping their pink slurry of feces, water and bacteria into wilderness areas and rivers, and a recent Duke University study found the communities closest to large hog farms have lower life expectancy.
Pork Power: There are 10.7 million people in North Carolina and 9.7 million pigs. The dangers of open waste lagoons have been documented for decades, but the state’s hog lobby is powerful, and has beat back regulations on farms, which have been blamed for myriad health and environmental issues in their home communities. Among top pig producing states only North Carolina and Illinois allow for widespread use of open-air waste-storage lagoons and fertilizer spray fields. (Iowa keeps the poop from its 20 million pigs in underground pits.)
Watchdog groups complain the largest, foulest operations tend to be permitted in predominantly poor African-American and Latino areas, and some hog farm neighbors united in 2017 to file a lawsuit against a major pig farm in an attempt to keep their misty clouds of manure from wafting onto adjoining properties. Meanwhile, two U.S. representatives from North Carolina are busy introducing legislation that would curtail the rights of the public to sue pig farms.