The New Yorker: After Florence, Manure Lagoons Breach, and Residents Brace for the Rising Filth

Flooding from Florence has caused hog-waste lagoons in eastern North Carolina to fail, unleashing pathogens, bacteria, and gases into the floodwaters.
Photograph by Callaghan O’Hare / Bloomberg / Getty

by Charles Bethea | September 21, 2018

When I first spoke to Elsie Herring, this past Sunday, as floodwaters were rising to historic levels on the Carolina coast, the seventy-year-old retiree was fixing two leaks in the roof of her hundred-year-old family home in Wallace, North Carolina. She asked me to call her back. When I did, the next morning, the sun had come out, but her predicament had worsened. Herring spoke with a perfume-soaked tissue over her nose about a neighbor, a hog farmer with a hog-waste collection pit a third of a mile from her home. There are about four thousand of these so-called lagoons in North Carolina: they collect waste from the six million or more hogs grown in confinement at a given time, mostly on relatively cheap, flood-prone land near the coast, the same area where Florence, now a tropical depression, has brought endless rain.

“People don’t understand how nasty this hog industry is,” Herring, who for twenty-four years worked in the treasury division of a New York bank, told me. “We’re forced to live with animal waste and nobody seems to care, not even now.” For years, Herring has dealt with what court documents filed on her behalf describe as “odorous fecal and urinous mist” coming from the waste-spraying system on her neighbor Dwight Strickland’s hog operation. Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, one of the largest pork producers in the world, owns the hogs on Strickland’s farm. (There have been three verdicts against Murphy-Brown in the past six months—for twenty-five, fifty, and more than four hundred and seventy million dollars, respectively—all to settle lawsuits brought by the neighbors of hog farms contracted by Murphy-Brown. Smithfield did not return repeated calls for comment.) “It’s supposed to stay on the hog farm,” Herring said of the waste, “but the wind and water takes it wherever it wants to take it.”

Herring moved back to Wallace, from New York, to take care of her aging mother and a brother with special needs. The town is about sixty miles inland from the coast, in Duplin County, where flooding has been especially intense. Herring’s property flooded during Hurricane Floyd, in 1999, and, again, two years ago, during Matthew. “But this has never happened before,” she said, of the quantity of water in her backyard threatening to enter the house this week. (Strickland could not be reached for comment.)

As of noon on Thursday, according to North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, a hundred and thirty-two of the state’s roughly four thousand hog-waste lagoons were compromised or close to being compromised by structural damage, inundation, or overtopping. (The state’s Pork Council, which declined to comment on the Herring case, had a smaller estimate.) Rick Dove, a senior adviser to the Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit environmental group, has been flying over the floodwaters since Monday, surveying damage. On Wednesday, I went up in a small plane with Dove and a pilot, to see the flooding of the coastal hog lagoons for myself. During the three-hour flight, we flew over Trenton, Beulaville, Kenansville, Chinquapin, and, finally, Wallace. Marooned homes, churches, and businesses dotted the landscape, though the waters had, in many places, receded, according to Dove. I caught a stomach-churning smell that Dove later described as “a little whiff of hog waste.” “Nothing like we’d normally get on a high-pressure day,” when it’s significantly worse, he added.

Often, it was possible to tell that a lagoon had been submerged by flooding if it was no longer the “Pepto-Bismol” color, as Dove described it, of most lagoons. (Bacteria feeds on the waste, creating the color.) Instead, it would be the hue of a nearby river. Dove pointed out some two dozen breached lagoons along the way. When we passed over the Strickland operation, its lagoon was not pink—but a subsequent review of images on Google Earth showed that it had not been pink prior to the storm, either. However, some tree-lined land a few hundred yards from Herring’s property was covered in a large pinkish pool. Waste was either escaping from the hogs’ houses or being dumped there, “which is potentially illegal,” Dove said, “and definitely a problem for Elsie.”

Herring and members of her family are pursuing litigation against Smithfield, starting with a nuisance lawsuit. “It’s the odor,” she told me. “The contamination of our shallow wells. The mosquitoes. The flies. The buzzards. The gnats. You know, the snakes, the rats. All these things associated with day-to-day hog operations. We can’t even hang our clothes on the line outside, because of the odor.” Herring told me that she has bronchitis, as does a nephew living nearby, and she wonders if it, too, is related to the hog farm. But she worries that the litigation will move too slowly and another hurricane or tropical storm will come. “They can’t handle these hurricanes. Look how bad this storm was, two years after Matthew? And when Floyd came through before that, that was the ‘hundred-year flood.’ And we’ve had two more since then. Each seems to be getting worse! And they don’t seem to get it.”

The Raleigh News & Observer published a trailblazing and Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the environmental and health risks posed by the state’s growing pork industry back in 1995. In June of that year, at Oceanview Farm, outside of Jacksonville, North Carolina, near the New River, an eight-acre hog waste lagoon gave way, unleashing twenty-five million gallons of swine shit into one of the New’s tributaries. David Kirby’s 2010 book on factory farming, “Animal Factory,” details the spill, which turned tobacco and soybean farms into what he calls a “nightmarish moonscape” near Richlands, a previously quaint hamlet nicknamed the Town of Perfect Water. Kirby writes:

On State Road 1235, motorists were forging a foot-deep river of brown water. Cleaning the shit from their undercarriages would be a nasty job. All around the accident, black, brackish pools of sludge had formed into mini-waste lagoons, each emitting a vomit-inducing stench. Much of the neighborhood was choking in a dank, heavy cloud of gases. Downstream, dead fish dangled from mucky bushes like devilish ornaments.

According to Kirby, Oceanview officials blamed the lagoon failure on “the foot of rain.” State officials blamed a poorly placed, structure-weakening drainage pipe. In any case, it was not the only hog-waste lagoon to breach that summer: there were several, including another, smaller breach on the same day. More than two decades later, the lagoons keep failing, unleashing pathogens, bacteria, and gases. Nitrogen and phosphorous cause oxygen-depleting algae blooms in the water, which extinguish other forms of life. Fish die downstream. Even neurotoxins appear. “Lagoon failure can unleash myriad pollutants and dangerous organisms,” Dove told me, “with lasting effects on people and our waterways.”

On Wednesday night, after another day spent observing eastern North Carolina’s storm-saturated hog lagoons from the air, Dove received a call from Will Hendrick, a staff attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance. Sitting next to Dove when he received the call, I heard the seventy-nine-year-old retired marine repeat aloud, twice, “seven million gallons?” As Dove soon explained to me, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, Kemp Burdette—who’d also been flying around doing lagoon reconnaissance that day—had discovered two “total failures” at farms in Duplin and Sampson counties, the leading pork-producing counties in the U.S. After conferring with Soren Rundquist, the director of geospatial analysis at an advocacy organization called Environmental Working Group, it was determined that these lagoons unleashed all of their contents, an estimated 7.3 million gallons of waste—including decades-old sludge that Kemp described as “the worst constituents of hog waste concentrated”—into tributaries of the South River and the Northeast Cape Fear River. It was the biggest single-day hog-waste lagoon breach since the one at Oceanview, in 1995, as far as Dove could recall.

“It’s clearly significant,” Hendrick told me late Wednesday night. “But, to me, the real question is: how many more? And what will we find tomorrow?” Burdette, reached by text before bed, agreed. “There are more out there now,” he wrote. “I’m sure.”

On Thursday, Dove went back up, and he posted to his Facebook page while he was in the air. He had just seen “a blowout in a lagoon wall that you could drive a Mack truck through,” he reported. “All feces and urine discharged downstream. Maybe it’s time to invite Smithfield executives to have a look.”