agriculture, Environment

This Week in Pollution: coal ash, hog lagoons and a wayward EPA

Rainfall from Hurricane Florence overlaid with the locations of industrialized livestock operations. (Map: Environmental Working Group)

Good morning, before I delve into the weekly recap of Contamination’s Greatest Hits, I want to tell you what I just heard at the NC Chamber of Commerce’s Agri-Business conference this morning.

Ray Starling, who used to be with the NC Department of Agriculture, is now chief of staff at the USDA. One day, Starling said, he was in the Oval Office visiting with President Trump. “On the president’s desk was a box made of wood with the presidential seal on one side and it had a red button. The president pushes the red button. I thought the floor was going to open up in front of me and I would fall through it. I was fairly certain some country had been blown off the map.”

Instead, Starling said, “moments later a man entered the Oval Office carrying a silver platter” with a Diet Coke for the president.

And now you know.

First up, a perennial favorite since 2014: Coal ash. Sampling by Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr near the inactive coal ash basins at the HF Lee plant, showed arsenic levels in the Neuse River, the drinking water source for Goldsboro, at 186 parts per million, far above the drinking water standard of 10 ppm. Near the Sutton plant, whose lake drains into the beleaguered Cape Fear River, also a major drinking water supply, the results were an off-the-charts 710 ppm.

Meanwhile, Duke Energy and the NC Department of Environmental Quality each did its own testing near both HF Lee and Sutton. DEQ found elevated levels of copper near Sutton, but both the agency’s and the utility’s samples indicated arsenic contamination was below drinking water standards there and at HF Lee.

How can these results be so contradictory — one set menacing and the other hunky-dory? Well, the variations can hinge on several factors: where and when the samples were taken, and how far into the water column — in other words, how deep the samplers plunged the bottle. Sediment, aka dirt in the riverbed, would be even more telling, because the contaminants might have nestled there. But sediment rarely stays put. Boats, storms, wind can all stir it up, sending contamination downstream.

DEQ and Duke, and the riverkeepers, will continue to monitor potential contamination in the rivers.

Speaking of coal, the EPA (rechristened for the purposes of this column as Experiencing Peak Apocalypse) plans to roll back mercury emissions rules for coal-fired power plants. Mercury, also known in 14th-century parlance as quicksilver, is not an element to be messed with. (Nonetheless, in eighth-grade science class, we entertained ourselves by goosing globules of it on our desks. This occurred in the dark ages of 1978, when trepanation may have still been in vogue in my small town.)

Historically, coal-fired power plants have been major emitters of mercury. When the mercury falls back to the Earth and enters water, it converts to methylmercury. Fish take up methylmercury, and when people eat fish, they also get a dose. Mercury can harm the nervous system, including that of a developing fetus, which is why pregnant women are advised to restrict their intake of certain mercury-prone species, such as tuna. There are fish advisories for mercury contamination in waterways throughout North Carolina for everyone.

Who thinks weakening mercury rules is a good idea? The New York Times breaks down the issue, but essentially the EPA, led by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, reasons that the cost to industry to adhere to the rule is greater than the public health costs if the rule is rolled back. I’d like to see the math on that, right after I cough up this lung. Nonetheless, the score is Industry 1, Health Benefits 0.

Also lurking in the post-Hurricane Florence waters of eastern North Carolina is millions of gallons of hog and poultry waste. Policy Watch reported this week on the many farms that still lie within the 100-year flood plain. The.Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group released a set of maps overlapping historic rainfall amounts with the density of these industrialized operations. The EWG’s spatial analysis concluded that “there are 926  concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, housing more than 3.8 million hogs and 578 poultry CAFOs holding an estimated 35 million fowl in areas where the National Weather Service said flooding was ‘occurring or imminent’ after Florence.”

Hog farms often receive the most attention, unlike poultry farms, which escape necessary scrutiny because they are virtually unregulated. These farms that use “dry litter” (which no longer stays dry in a flood) aren’t required to have a permit. We don’t know where they are or who might have complained about them.

On the issue of hog farms, the Waterkeeper Alliance is suing the EPA over exemptions bestowed upon these industrialized  operations. Unlike many other polluting industries, these farms aren’t required to inform state and local officials about dangerous levels of pollutants that could be emanating from the operations.. For many industries, these disclosures are required under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. However, the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act gives the livestock industries a pass on reporting air emissions — ammonia, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter — that can exacerbate respiratory illness of those living near the farms.

Living near these concentrated animal feeding operations might shorten your lifespan, according to a September article published by Duke University scientist Julia Kravchenko and four of her colleagues in the NC Medical Journal.

The study concluded that North Carolina communities located near hog CAFOs “had higher all-cause and infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and higher hospital admissions/emergency room visits of low-birth weight infants.”

The study doesn’t go so far as to establish causality with exposures from hog CAFOs, but the authors write that future studies are needed to “determine factors that influence these outcomes, as well as the need to improve screening and diagnostic strategies for these diseases in North Carolina communities adjacent to hog CAFOs.”

Given these findings, it was disheartening to hear Dennis Kelly of Syngenta tell the agribusiness crowd this morning that one of the greatest concerns of farmers is “security — knowing you won’t be sued. That you have the right to farm according to normal agriculture practices.”

Somebody, please push the red button. No, the other one, where I get to fall through the floor.

2 Comments


  1. Bob

    October 11, 2018 at 2:55 pm

    When are you going to follow up on the devastation left behind from all the hog waste and dead animals from Hurricane Florence?

    It’s an environmental disaster!!!!

  2. Lisa Sorg

    October 12, 2018 at 10:14 am

    Bob, We covered this here: http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2018/09/24/dead-hogs-being-fished-from-swamps-workers-rescued-by-kayak-we-knew-how-many-farms-had-flooded-now-we-know-where-they-are/

    Plus, we’ve done several stories about problems with the hog farms in flood plains

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