Hog Lagoons Stay Contained Amid Pelting Rains, Governor Says

(Bloomberg) -- North Carolina’s hog-manure lagoons have stayed contained so far, according to the state, as the region continues to get pelted with rain from the remnants of Hurricane Florence.

The state’s 4,000 lagoons are holding out, even though huge swaths of farmland in the state’s eastern corner are underwater, Governor Roy Cooper said. The lined earthen pits that hold treated waste had been a major environmental concern as unprecedented rain lashed North Carolina, with at least 30 rivers breaching their banks.

"We are closely monitoring hog lagoons, and we haven’t had any reports of issues," Cooper said in a media briefing Sunday.

However, some experts cast doubt on the governor’s assessment. The counties most severely affected by Florence are major swine-farm counties, with some barely above sea level, said Professor Mark Sobsey of the environmental sciences department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“If farmland is completely submerged, it’s a good chance swine farms are completely submerged," Sobsey said. "I’d like to see some evidence to show that somehow swine farms and lagoons have been magically spared as everything else fell under water," he said. "It’s just a little bit hard to believe."

Hog Lagoons Stay Contained Amid Pelting Rains, Governor Says

Hog farming is one of the biggest industries in North Carolina. Duplin County, where two people have died due to flash flooding, is home to 45 times as many hogs as its human population. Lagoons in the state’s east have flooded in previous hurricanes, causing serious health and safety hazards. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd flooded dozens of hog-manure lagoons and swine farms, leading to widely circulated photos of pigs clinging to roof tops. Hurricane Matthew submerged 14 lagoons in 2016.

Florence was downgraded to a tropical depression early Sunday as winds diminished to 35 miles per hour, but officials said the threat of heavy rainfall persisted.

More than 10 billion pounds of wet animal waste is produced annually in the state, according to a June 2016 report by the Waterkeeper Alliance, a watchdog group. Environmental organizations are preparing to inspect waterways for toxic spills once the storm subsides. North Carolina has more hogs than any U.S. state other than Iowa.

“Rainfall amounts across the region have not exceeded the available capacity of farm lagoons on whole across the industry,” the North Carolina Pork Council said in a statement posted to its website Saturday. “Lagoon levels were low ahead of the storm” after the waste was used as crop fertilizer, the group said.

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