Environment

This week in pollution: A final, breathtaking tally of what Hurricane Matthew hath wrought

Within a week of Hurricane Matthew, evidence of the what had been set free and sent asunder could be found on the roadsides throughout eastern North Carolina. A pair of rowboats landed belly up in the woods on Rouse Road in Kinston. A dead hog in Duplin County, separated from its farm, finally came to rest along Highway 111, its legs stiff in the air.

Sixty-five thousand tons of vegetation, 50,000 tons of construction and demolition debris and 3,000 tons of dead animals: That’s a partial tally of the wreckage Hurricane Matthew left behind.

The numbers come from materials delivered to the state’s 70 temporary disaster debris sites and the mass graves of more than 2 million farm animals, who, to put it clinically, were “composted.”

State officials this week provided the latest accounting of the detritus to the Environmental Management Commission. Although Matthew’s toll was less devastating than Floyd’s, the numbers were nonetheless defied imagination. More than 100 million gallons of human sewage spewed from sanitary sewers; 60 percent of it entered rivers and streams.

Of the 2,100 swine farms affected, 245 were noncompliant, meaning that the hog waste lagoons failed to hold their fetid contents. Fifteen of the lagoons were flooded, and the wall of one had “a small breach,” said Jay Zimmerman, director of the Division of Water Resources.

This is a list of the number of animal waste lagoons that were breached in Hurricane Matthew.

(Table by DEQ and provided to Environmental Management Commission)

These farmers won’t be cited, DEQ has said, because the failures were the result of a natural disaster.

Although 2 million chickens also died in the storm, the environmental impacts from the poultry farms fall under the Department of Agriculture, not DEQ.

Coal ash from inactive ponds and the dams at HF Lee plant in Goldsboro and the Weatherspoon facility in Lumberton discharged into the Neuse and Lumbee rivers, respectively. While waterkeepers and news helicopters spotted the damage, DEQ staff couldn’t reach the breach by boat for several days, Zimmerman said. Once the flood receded, staff approached the Lee plant only to be temporarily thwarted by a band of water moccasins who had sought higher ground.

At the time, waterkeepers released photos and video of a layer of coal ash on the Neuse River, upstream of the Lee plant. Duke Energy scuttled the concern, as did DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder, saying the amount of coal ash wouldn’t “fill the bed of a pickup truck.” The material spotted by waterkeepers was only benign cenospheres, they said.

But cenospheres can be toxic. A byproduct of coal ash, they can contain arsenic.

Zimmerman maintained that the staff were “not able to measure significant impacts,” upstream and downstream of the plants. But, because cenospheres float, he added, “they are hard to measure and to quantify.”

The agency has also asked Duke Energy to submit a Plan of Action to address the releases at its Lee plant.

In mid to late October, the NC Department of Environmental Quality took 396 water samples at 30 ambient monitoring stations in 24 counties. While there were pollutants detected in the water, ranging from fecal coliform to herbicides, Zimmerman said, “We didn’t see significant impacts from fuel oils, diesel or even nutrients” such as nitrogen and phosphorus. But, he allowed, that doesn’t mean the water was or is clean. “There were pollutants getting in the water, but it was diluted,” Zimmerman told the EMC.

DEQ will continue water quality monitoring for several months, if the agency determines it’s necessary.

In addition, 65 river and reservoir dams were damaged; there was a breach in 20 of them. Forty-five need repair at an estimated cost of $41 million to $42 million. While local governments can apply to FEMA for hazard mitigation money, said Tracy Davis, director of the Division of Energy, Mineral, and Land Resources. “There is no federal or state rehabilitation funding. The full expense is borne by the dam owners.’

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