Flooding after Hurricane Matthew inundated dozens of poultry farms in Eastern North Carolina. Photo shows and aerial view of inundated chicken houses.
Flooding after Hurricane Matthew inundated dozens of poultry farms in Eastern North Carolina. Photo courtesy Rick Dove/ Waterkeeper Alliance

Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance release a map of flooded large-scale hog and poultry farms, filling in some information of where waste may have spilled.

By Catherine Clabby

Because of limited government oversight of big poultry farms, the amount of animal waste that floods washed into North Carolina rivers may be underestimated post-Hurricane Matthew, two environmental groups say.

An analysis of aerial photographs taken during October’s flooding discloses water submerging or partially submerging 26 large poultry farms in eight hard-hit counties in eastern North Carolina, the environmentalists said.

That means dry waste from big poultry farms located near open waters could have washed into streams and rivers unnoticed, said Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance staff.

Flooding after Hurricane Matthew inundated dozens of poultry farms in Eastern North Carolina. Photo courtesy Rick Dove/ Waterkeeper Alliance

Waste stored at poultry facilities located near public waterways could be at risk of washing into streams or rivers during normal rains, said Will Hendrick, staff attorney for the North Carolina Pure Farms Pure Waters Campaign, an affiliate of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

“But they are more vulnerable to extreme weather in those places,” Hendrick said.

Who knows?

Unlike big hog farms, most large poultry farms in North Carolina are not required to obtain state Department of Environmental Quality permits to manage waste at locations near rivers and streams, Hendrick noted. Only those liquid waste management systems, which are more vulnerable to washing away, are required to obtain permits.

Poultry farms raising even tens of thousands of animals but producing dry waste are “deemed permitted” if they follow specific rules. They can’t stockpile litter less than 100 feet from a waterway, for instance. Nor can they leave stockpiled litter uncovered for longer than 15 days.

Public records rarely have information on where large poultry farms near public waterways are even located or if any environmental problems could occur, Hendrick said.

State environmental regulators, for instance, are aware that flood water reached 14 hog farms holding DEQ permits and breached two hog waste lagoons, said Marla Sink. Farmers reported those troubles to DEQ.

But what happened at the majority of poultry farms near waterways, which produce dry litter waste rather than regulated wet waste, is unknown to the agency.

“We don’t know where all the poultry farms are,” said Marla Sink, a spokeswoman for the DEQ division of water quality, who stressed that the agency welcomes any data the environmental groups provide.

More chickens

Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance staff have taken several steps in recent months to raise awareness of the growth of poultry farms in this state and their potential risks to public waters.

A map they released last summer plotted more than 6,500 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) across the state, noting many are near protected waters such as streams and rivers that feed public drinking water supplies. There were 3,900 poultry operations on the new map.

The new map that documents flooding at hog and poultry farms compares aerial photos obtained during flooding to those taken for the survey when the ground was dry.

Map courtesy Waterkeeper Alliance and Environmental Working Group

North Carolina regulators would be wise to do with poultry what was done with large hog farms located in floodplains after flooding from Hurricane Floyd, Hendrick said. Flooding from that 1999 hurricane in eastern North Carolina flooded 50 hog lagoons, causing six to breach.

The state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund spent $18.7 million to buy out 42 swine operations from locations deemed vulnerable to floods and decommissioned 103 waste lagoons after Floyd.The state agriculture department has estimated that 1.7 million chickens and 112,000 turkeys died in Hurricane Matthew flooding.

N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesman Brian Long said he knows of no discussions at the department about whether farms near floodplains should be moved. It’s too early to know if those conversations will emerge in Matthew’s wake, he said.

“We’re very much in the assessment and recovery stage. I think there will be a time to look at those broader policy questions, “ he said.

Lingering water quality effects

Long stressed that multiple types of waste and contaminants washed into open waters during the recent flooding aside from animal waste, with human sewage among the contaminants.

The latest DEQ data on sanitary sewer overflows related to Hurricane Matthew so far include 258 spills, with an estimated 64,718,161 gallons of untreated sewage released into surface waters, Sink, the DEQ spokeswoman, said. Not all reports have been recorded in a DEQ database yet though.

EWG and Waterkeeper Alliance estimates of large poultry and swine farms in and near (within 100 feet) of 100-year floodplains in North Carolina. Table courtesy: EWG/ WA

DEQ is now trying to assess any lingering water quality effects from spills of animal and human waste, as well as releases of potential contaminants in coal ash washed out of the Duke Energy H.F. Lee power plant in Goldsboro and petroleum that escaped from underground tanks and tanker trucks.

The agency is taking samples at 30 locations in 24 counties in the Tar-Pamlico, Neuse, Cape Fear, Lumber, Roanoke, Chowan and White Oak river basins.

Incidence of fecal coliform, pesticides, nutrients, metals, gasoline or diesel, and 11 other unwelcome contaminants and conditions are being recorded and will be compared to past levels after storms and in normal weather conditions.

Environmental teams from DEQ will test again in December to record any changes.

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Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...