Environment

This Week in Pollution: coal ash, wastewater, dead animals

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Reason No. 42,098 not to enter flooded areas: The historic high water that has inundated eastern North Carolina is a toxic vichysoisse of sewage, animal waste, coal ash and carcasses from the thousands of industrialized farms — all of which threaten the health of people living in that area.

The state agriculture department estimates that at least 2 million dead chickens, mostly broilers, plus an unknown number of hogs and turkeys, have died as a result of flooding from Hurricane Matthew. So what does one do with millions of dead animals? Well, frankly, you compost them. A spokesman for the NC Department of Environmental Quality told NCPW that is the preferred method. After burying the whole carcasses in carbon-rich materials like straw, sawdust, wood chips and other recycled compost, the material can be reused for fertilizer.

After being composted, the material can be reused for agricultural purposes on the farm such as fertilizer. If composting is not possible, placing the dead animals in a permitted, lined landfill is a safe and acceptable disposal method, according to DEQ.

delivery-of-carbon-materials

Delivering compost for animal burial (Photo: NC Department of Agriculture)

What else lurks beneath the water? Animal waste that has spilled over the brim of lagoons, although there have been no official reports of any waste ponds failing — yet. That waste can contain myriad contaminants such as E. coli. Ditto for human waste that has leaked from damaged septic fields in rural areas and from overwhelmed wastewater treatment plants in the cities.

The threat to private drinking water wells is especially serious. Statewide, 2.3 million people get their water from private wells, predominantly in rural areas, such as eastern North Carolina. In addition to the aforementioned contaminants — and just filth in general — entering the wells, some of those systems were already tainted. So it follows that those chemicals would be released when the wells overflow.

Update at 6:45 p.m. The Bladen Journal has instructions on how to get a free water testing kit for counties affected by the hurricane.

For example, in Duplin County, which has been especially hard hit, 5 percent of the 301 wells tested by the UNC Superfund Research program tested above maximum contaminant levels for lead.  In Nash County, elevated levels of arsenic, which can cause cancer, were detected in 2 percent of 1,289 wells.

The EPA has published guidelines on how to disinfect your well, but it’s best left to a professional. Until the well has been tested not only for contaminants, but mechanical damage, it’s essential not to touch it (even to turn it off — you could be electrocuted) or use the water for any reason, even washing your hands.

This drinking water emergency is not just an acute, short-term problem. From the EPA:

Because of the extensive flood area and the speed and direction of ground water flow, your well may not be a safe source of water for many months after the flood. The well can become contaminated with bacteria or other contaminants. Waste water from malfunctioning septic tanks or chemicals seeping into the ground can contaminate the ground water even after the water was tested and found to be safe. It will be necessary to take long range precautions, including repeated testing, to protect the safety of drinking water.

To donate water and other goods to flood victims, check out these lists from the Fayetteville Observer, WRAL and the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina.

This Week in Pollution appears every Friday afternoon. It compiles news of major pollution and contamination disasters from the previous week.

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