Hurricane Florence dropped more than 30 inches of rain in some North Carolina coastal communities in September, killing at least 39 people, toppling trees, downing power lines, and causing extensive flood damage. Now that the waters have receded, hundreds of thousands of residents are left to rebuild or repair their homes and businesses and replace their destroyed belongings. For those living near hog farms, the cleanup will need to be even more extensive.
That’s because runoff from huge livestock operations can spread large amounts of fecal matter throughout the landscape—and with it the potential danger of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or superbugs.
North Carolina is home to nearly 10 million hogs that produce 10 billion gallons of manure each year. Farmers store the pigs’ waste in thousands of pits, some the size of football fields, called lagoons. During Hurricane Florence, six lagoons suffered structural damage and 33 have overflowed so far, discharging an enormous amount of hog feces into the surrounding environment.
When thousands of animals live together in close quarters, standing in their own feces, disease happens. Farmers administer low doses of antibiotics to prevent the spread of illness (and to help spur growth), but such practices also encourage the development of bacteria that can resist those medicines.
The drug-resistant bacteria colonizing the pigs’ bodies come out in their feces and eventually get flushed into the lagoons, says Lance B. Price, founding director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University. When the lagoons overflow, the superbugs go wherever the floodwaters go.
This is what happened in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd caused lagoons at 46 operations in eastern North Carolina to spill their contents. A decade and a half later, a study published by the National Institutes of Health found that there were still high concentrations of fecal bacteria in surface waters both upstream and downstream from the hog lagoons. More than 40 percent of samples exceeded state and federal water quality guidelines for E. coli.
“We know from past hurricanes that the bacterial threat from these overflowing lagoons sticks around even after the floodwaters go away,” says Valerie Baron, an NRDC attorney who works on sustainable agriculture issues. “But the waste is a significant problem even when there’s not a major weather event or lagoon failure.”
Residents living near concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, where hogs live snout-to-snout, already experience a range of adverse health conditions ranging from asthma and skin irritation to birth defects and miscarriages. A 2018 study published in the North Carolina Medical Journal found that people living near hog farms also had lower life expectancies and higher rates of hospital admissions than other North Carolinians.
No government agency currently tracks the possible connections between lagoon overflows and health issues in CAFO-adjacent communities, but Price suspects hospitals in downstream regions could see upticks in illnesses such as staph, MRSA, and E. coli infections. Making matters worse, he says, “If people get an infection from the bacteria, the treatment can fail because those pathogens are resistant to antibiotics.”
CAFO-contaminated drinking water is one of the biggest concerns. Well water is prevalent in rural communities. When sullied floodwaters seep into the ground, the sunlight that can kill some troublesome bacteria can no longer reach them. Such bacteria can also persist in sediment and contaminate well water over long periods of time.
Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, says testing and treating drinking water sources can help. Unfortunately, she notes, industrial hog operations are often located in low-income communities where residents can’t afford water tests or expensive filtration systems. Many of these communities are predominantly African-American, and Johnston calls it “an issue of environmental racism.”
At least 150 industrial hog operations in North Carolina are located in or near 100-year floodplains. In places like Duplin and Sampson Counties, where hogs outnumber humans, residents are at ongoing risk from flooded hog lagoons.
“We have programs to help farmers out after these flood events, to help them rebuild and compensate them for their losses,” says Price. “It seems that some of that money could be spent helping people living in these regions to determine whether their drinking water is safe and then help them rectify the problem.”
Prevention, of course, is key. Relocating hog farms to higher ground could keep them out of a flood’s reach, but that would not stem the prolific amounts of excrement they produce nor lessen the threats their living conditions pose to modern medicine. Researchers have been looking into possible technological solutions, such as transforming waste into biofuel, but so far nothing has proved capable of putting a dent in the state’s hog waste problem.
Smaller farms do not require lagoons and use less, if any, antibiotics, but there’s plenty of room for improvement at large-scale operations. David Wallinga, a physician working on health policy at NRDC, points out that Denmark and the Netherlands have already succeeded in curbing antibiotic overuse on industrial pig farms. Providing more space and better feed, for example, helps to decreases the animals’ stress levels and boosts their immune systems, allowing agricultural antibiotic use in those European countries to drop nearly 60 percent.
The U.S. livestock industry could do the same, but unfortunately it has not been adequately motivated to do so. And now Baron fears the Trump administration is making a bad situation worse. A month before Hurricane Florence came barreling through North Carolina, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it was changing its National Enforcement Initiative and dropping its focus on CAFOs. The NEI has long gone after industries that have a poor history of compliance and pose an outsize threat to neighboring communities.
Ending the enforcement program, Baron says, could make it less likely that bad actors will ever comply. “It gives communities one less place to go,” she says.
Right now, looking the other way at CAFO violations isn’t an option for the North Carolinians of Duplin and Sampson Counties. They’re still busy cleaning up the hog industry’s mess, and will be for some time.
Hurricane Florence, and now Hurricane Michael, won’t be the last devastating storms to blow through the state. Climate models suggest the region can expect major flooding events to become more severe and frequent in decades to come.
“We can’t act surprised every time this happens,” says Price. After Hurricane Floyd, “we found out that a lot of these pig farms were in floodplains—and when it was all over, the farms were rebuilt in the same floodplains,” he says. “Almost two decades later, here we are again.”
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