By early Friday morning, Hurricane Florence was already beginning to leave destruction in its wake. As of 2:30 a.m., there was intense flooding in New Bern, N.C., as 150 people awaited rescue, and over 180,000 people in the region were without power, according to the Washington Post. A local TV station was also forced to evacuate as they covered the hurricane. But the worst of the storm is still yet to come.
One of Florence’s most insidious impacts may not be the structural damage to buildings or flooding but the industrial waste the storm could whip up on its path across the Carolinas. North Carolina, specifically in Duplin and Sampson counties, where the storm is headed, has the highest concentration of pig farms almost anywhere in the country. This means that Florence’s high winds and flooding could spread waste from pig shit “lagoons” that could poison local rivers and lakes.
“This storm is hurtling towards the center of animal agriculture in the state of North Carolina,” Will Hendrick, an a lawyer from the nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance, told the Post.
Just how much pig shit could this storm stir up? North Carolina has 9.7 million pigs, which produce 10 billion gallons of manure every year. “It’s 500 times the waste produced by the entire population of Washington D.C.,” Alexis Andiman, an attorney with EarthJustice, told the Post.
Once that manure gets into local waterways, it can kill fish and trigger algae blooms, as it did when Hurricane Matthew hit the region in 2016 and flooded 14 lagoons. This would actually still be less devastating than the impact of Hurricane Floyd, in 1999. “A lot of the farms that flooded in Floyd were bought out and closed, and that’s why you didn’t see the same impact in Matthew,” Andy Curliss, CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council, told the paper. Comforting!
Aside from lakes of pig shit, the other major concern is coal ash, the byproduct of coal power plants. Coal ash is made up of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium, which are poisonous to humans and have been shown to cause respiratory diseases and cancer. Energy companies store coal ash in pits mixed with water, which they say is safe.
Others disagree. There are two dangers, Avner Vengosh, a professor at Duke University, told the Post. “One is the overflowing of coal ash ponds causing water contamination in lakes and rivers. The other potential risk is the escape of the ash itself,” he said.
It has happened before. During a 2008 storm in Tennessee, heavy rain overflowed a coal ash pond and 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash was released into the environment.
Don’t worry, Carolinians—there are also several Superfund sites and chemical plants in the path of the storm! North and South Carolina is home to 70 Superfund sites, including a former smelting plant near the coast that’s contaminated with arsenic and antimony. There are also hundreds of chemical plants storing dangerous materials like PCBs and dioxins across the states.
These kinds of dangers are why storms are often most deadly after they happen, despite whatever Donald Trump says. Agencies like the EPA are keeping watch over all of these sites, but until the storm passes, it’s impossible to know how bad the environmental damage will be.