Riverkeepers discover extremely high levels of fecal bacteria in waterways near major hog waste spill that was reportedly cleaned up

This photo, taken by the Neuse Riverkeeper and Tar-Pamlico Riverkeeper on Aug. 23, shows the digester illegally operating three months after the original disaster. (Courtesy photo)

Two North Carolina riverkeepers have documented high levels of fecal bacteria in Wayne County waterways near White Oak Farms, raising questions about the thoroughness of the cleanup of a major swine waste spill last year.

White Oak Farms near Fremont hasn’t raised hogs since December 2020, but operated a biodigester that used dead pigs, deli meat and other waste to generate methane for electricity.

In May 2022, The News & Observer reported, the cover of the biodigester ruptured, sending millions of gallons of contaminated waste into nearby waterways, including Nahunta Swamp.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality fined the farm $34,000 for groundwater quality violations in early December 2022.

Shortly after DEQ announced the fine, Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop and Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell collected samples from channels running directly off the farm property and draining into Nahunta Swamp.

The swamp is a “jurisdictional water,” meaning it is subject to regulations under the federal Clean Water Act.

For comparison, Krop and Howell also collected a sample upstream of the farm.

Downstream, fecal coliform levels on that day ranged from four to 100 times the standard for freshwater. However, for regulatory purposes the state requires five consecutive samples to be taken during a 30-day period. Nonetheless, the extremely high levels of bacteria merit additional testing.

The riverkeepers submitted their samples to Jonah Ventures, which uses DNA techniques to determine the source of fecal contamination. That testing confirmed the main source of fecal contamination in the samples was swine.

Levels of E. coli were also detected at four to eight times the EPA’s recreational standard. North Carolina does not have E. coli standards for its waterways, even though the EPA recommends using that method to better protect human health.

Concentrations of nitrates and ammonia, common in waste, were also elevated in the downstream samples.

Pollutants in the upstream sample were much lower than those downstream and met applicable state water quality standards.

Samples NH-1 and NH-2 contained extremely high concentrations of fecal bacteria, as well as elevated levels of nitrates, all of which can be traced back to waste. NH-3, in the far left part of the screen, is upstream of White Oak Farms. Sampling there showed much lower levels of contaminants, within state standards. (Map courtesy the river keepers)

Deborah Ballance of B&B Partnership, which owns the farm, told Policy Watch that the cleanup is complete and that other sources could be contaminating the creek behind the property. However, Krop said the sampling was conducted at the confluence of the swamp and channels leading from the farm and at the property line.

Krop and Howell sent a letter to state environmental officials on Dec. 22 notifying them of their findings. They also requested DEQ conduct additional sampling and re-inspect the farm.  As of Jan. 5, DEQ hadn’t responded, Krop said.

After Policy Watch contacted DEQ about the riverkeepers’ findings and their letter, an agency spokesman replied via email that staff is reviewing the information and “plans to investigate further.”

Ballance said she was aware of the riverkeepers’ letter to DEQ and wanted to send a copy to the company’s attorney.

(Since the letter is public record and is linked in this story, Policy Watch provided it to Ballance.)

Krop told Policy Watch that no other hog farms are near Nahunta Swamp, which Policy Watch confirmed through the state’s community mapping tool. In the riverkeepers’ letter to the NC Department of Environmental Quality, they noted that “most of the land adjacent to the swamp between two of the samples is undeveloped, forest land, with the exception of a few residential homes and agricultural fields.”

If the waste from the May 2022 spill was cleaned up, it’s important that DEQ determine if there are other contamination sources on the farm, Krop said.

State records show the clean up was scheduled to be complete by August.

The riverkeepers requested state records five months ago detailing the cleanup process and previous water sampling results from the swamp.

“Without this information, we are unable to draw further conclusions about the exact source of nutrient and bacteria pollution or make an independent assessment regarding the effectiveness of any containment and cleanup plan,” the letter reads.

“Regardless, there is an alarming and ongoing pollution concern impacting Nahunta Swampe directly adjacent to the White Oak Farms facility.”

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Riverkeepers discover extremely high levels of fecal bacteria in waterways near major hog waste spill that was reportedly cleaned up