By THE EDITORIAL BOARDOCT. 25, 2016
The landscape of eastern North Carolina is dotted with giant pools of bright pink sludge. These are waste lagoons, where industrial farms across the state dispose of billions of gallons of untreated pig urine and feces every year.
The waste can carry E. coli, salmonella, cryptosporidium and other bacteria that can lead to serious illness or death if they spread to humans. After Hurricane Matthew deluged North Carolina this month, at least 14 of the lagoons flooded.
A 2014 image of an animal waste lagoon on a hog farm in North Carolina. Credit Zach Frailey/Kinston Free Press, via Associated Press
Environmental advocates and state officials have been flying over regions to identify overflowing lagoons where floodwaters have become mixed with the waste, a public health hazard that could last for weeks as bacteria flow into rivers and streams, potentially sickening those who come into contact with those waters.
Bacteria can also contaminate groundwater, the main source of drinking water for more than three million North Carolinians. Meanwhile, the nitrogen and phosphorus in hog waste can kill fish and damage ecosystems. State officials are now beginning to test rivers to assess the level of contamination.
In states where hog farmers use waste lagoons, like North Carolina and Illinois, flooding is a serious hazard that may become more frequent as climate change leads to more severe storms. Even under normal conditions, lagoons can produce dangerous gases, noxious smells and dust containing hog waste. People living near these lagoons are at increased risk of asthma, diarrhea, eye irritation, depression and other health problems.
A research program at North Carolina State University has found several safer waste-disposal methods, including one that converts nitrogen in waste into harmless nitrogen gas and uses another process to eliminate harmful bacteria.
North Carolina took steps toward protecting its residents by passing a moratorium on new lagoons in 1997 and making it permanent in 2007. But around 4,000 lagoons constructed before 1997 remain in active use. Unless North Carolina and other states require agriculture companies to change their waste-disposal methods, what happened after Hurricane Matthew will happen again.