Commentary

Editorial: Hurricanes show need for tougher regulation of hogs, sewage, development

There was a fine editorial in the Fayetteville Observer earlier this week (and republished today in the Greenville Daily Reflector) that tells it like it is with respect to the massive water pollution issues that confront eastern North Carolina — particularly in what the editorial describes as the “open sewer” that is the Cape Fear River. As the editorial notes:

The extent of the river pollution raises serious public policy questions that need to be addressed. It is urgent and procrastination should be punishable by losses at the polls.

We’ve heard a great deal about the problems caused by massive amounts of animal waste from the pork and poultry industries, which annually raise millions of hogs and tens of millions of chickens and turkeys in this region. Both use primitive technology for waste disposal and have been reluctant to upgrade to safer disposal solutions that are readily available but more expensive that old fashioned open cesspools and piles of poultry litter. The problem is compounded by the location of many of these factory-scale farms in flood plains, where they are vulnerable, especially to epic floods like those brought by hurricanes Floyd, Matthew and Florence.

Tighter regulation is needed and some of those factory farms need to be moved to higher ground. Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed Florence relief package includes funding for farm buyouts and relocations.

While state lawmakers and regulators need to find better solutions to those problems, they turn out to be only one part of the danger we face from the growing number of flooding events that appears to be North Carolina’s new normal. Even more contaminants were released into the Cape Fear and its tributaries by sources we had previously believed to be under control: our municipal sewer systems.

As an Observer story reported Sunday, nearly 40 million gallons of untreated sewage was discharged into the river basin after Florence struck, as municipal sewer systems were unable to cope with the flooding. According to state records, the raw or partially treated sewage was spilled from systems from Greensboro down to New Hanover County. Another 2.1 million gallons of sewage were spilled into the Lumber River basin. Here in Fayetteville, about 6.4 million gallons were spilled from the Public Works Commission’s sewage processing systems….

It should be clear to all our regulators and public officials that we need to make further investments in our sewage-treatment facilities to prevent this kind of toxic release in future storms. It’s going to cost money, but considering the public health risks, we don’t have much choice.

And it’s imperative that lawmakers also revisit recommendations they ignored in the past: Proposed requirements for wider vegetation buffers to separate farmland and developed properties from our rivers, soaking up pollutants that otherwise will run off into the waterways during storms and flooding. The development industry has long opposed buffers and the General Assembly has heeded its wishes. We’re paying for their shortsightedness.

We can only hope our elected leaders finally see the fruits of their myopic labor and establish reasonable safeguards for public health and safety. It’s an election year and Florence is a fresh wound for many North Carolina residents. If the politicians don’t act, we expect the voters will.

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