Report: Hurricane Matthew Was a Farm-Runoff Disaster

Floodwaters washed hundreds of millions of gallons of hog waste off North Carolina’s pig farms.

Excrement from a chicken CAFO leaks from an inundated barn, contaminating water draining into the Neuse River near Seven Springs, North Carolina. (Photo: Waterkeeper Alliance via

Nov 4, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

The floodwaters were rising, and there was nothing North Carolina farmers could do to help their animals. After Hurricane Matthew hit the coastal state in early October, farmers returned to find the carcasses of an estimated 5 million chickens and turkeys, as well as thousands of dead pigs—all victims of the storm.

Loss of livestock hit farmers hard, but the spread of animal waste caused by the storm’s 15 inches of rain should be worrying for environmentalists and residents alike, according to a report published Friday by the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group. According to the report, the flooding was “so massive it was visible from space.”

The areas in and around North Carolina’s 100-year floodplain are home to 109 CAFOs that hold a total of 405,417 hogs, while an additional 46 house over 2.7 million chickens. Though weather events like Hurricane Matthew may not happen as frequently as the annual spring rains, putting so many animals and their waste in a flood-prone area is asking for trouble.

The amount of waste produced by these farms is staggering: 26,897 tons of dry litter from poultry and more than 371 million tons of liquid waste from the hogs that live in and near the floodplain, according to the report. In the case of swine waste, the manure is often stored in open-air lagoons or spread over fields—and both practices can result in runoff in the event of severe rain or flooding. “In floods, you get water that exceeds the berms on the dams that hold back these lagoons of waste at hog farms,” said Will Hendrick, manager of the Waterkeeper Alliance’s Pure Farms, Pure Waters North Carolina campaign. He explained that it’s a similar scenario for the waste applied to the fields: floodwater picks up the surface layer up off the ground, and when the floodwaters recede, all that mixed-up fertilizer, soil, and extra rainwater washes back into the water column.

Though environmentalists and people concerned about factory farming are familiar with this kind of agricultural-related pollution as a systemic issue, the report’s main function is to show North Carolina’s residents the toll this waste is taking in their backyards. “A lot of folks are dealing with their direct personal property impact and loss,” said Hendrick. “They aren’t thinking about the effects the storm has on water quality.” The most alarming feature of the report is its interactive maps, which allow people to see exactly how much waste runoff occurred in a given area. In one satellite image showing a portion of the Neuse River, viewers can see a before-and-after image of the flood, with the locations of CAFOs speckled throughout the water.

For those who see the post-Matthew contamination as a once-in-a-while side effect of a flood, annual rain has a similar—if smaller—effect. “The sheer volume of manure applied to fields oversaturates them,” said Soren Rundquist, director of spatial analysis for the EWG. “A simple one-inch rain is going to push that manure-laden soil into the surface water.” Every year, the coastal region of North Carolina receives an average of between 40 and 55 inches of rain.

The state has attempted to close some of these flood-prone farms in the past—$18.6 million has been spent to shut down 42 facilities—yet many remain. As North Carolina’s poultry industry continues to grow, Rundquist said the state should “admit there needs to be more oversight of these poultry operations.” He described the current lack of manure regulations for poultry operations as the “wild, wild West.” But even with better waste management, the flooding will continue—causing losses for farmers and harm to the environment.

At 4.7 million acres (roughly 15 percent of North Carolina’s land), the land that makes up the floodplain can’t simply be abandonded. Because housing is out of the question and any agricultural operation would find itself equally susceptible to flooding, Rundquist suggests that the land’s best use would be for public recreation. “Out West, you see a lot of states with marginal land are often used for public recreation,” he said. Hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping are all activities that are only hampered by flooding when the weather is so bad that most people don’t want to be taking part in outdoor recreation anyway. There may also be potential for forestry opportunities. “It’s a floodplain, and it will be flooded. Repatriating these lands into public property seems like the most logical next step,” Rundquist said.