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.

agriculture, Environment

In Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus and Craven counties, scores of swine farms lie in flood plains

Bladen County: 156 permitted swine farms, 30 of which are in or touching the 100-year flood plain and floodways.

Note: This is the second in a series of posts this week about the state’s swine farm buyout program, which is being revived after an 11-year hiatus. The coverage will include maps of more than a dozen counties and the locations of their flood plains and hog farms. See yesterday’s post for a primer on how the program works. These maps were built using open-source software, QGIS, and are based on DEQ’s list of animal feeding operations, FEMA flood plain maps and county overlays to indicate locations of cities and towns.

It’s not a coincidence that some of the areas hit the hardest by Hurricane Florence are low-lying regions that sit on sandy soil in the Coastal Plain. The highways and county roads seem to sit right on the water table.

Nor is it a coincidence that industrialized livestock operations, particularly swine farms, are also located here. As tobacco dried up as a major source of farming income, and other major manufacturing industries went abroad, giant hog farms filled the vacuum, some with 5,000 — even 10,000 — head of swine.

But swine farms and flooding don’t mix. After three hurricanes hit North Carolina in 1999, flooding the open waste lagoons, turning waterways into fetid baths of feces, the state started the Swine Farm Buyout Program in order to remove the most vulnerable farms from the areas most prone to flooding.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, commonly known as FEMA, designates 100-year and 500-year flood plains. A 100-year flood plain is classified as an area where there is a 1 percent chance of annual flooding. FEMA considers a 500-year flood plain as where the chance is 0.2 percent.

This information is not only important for local emergency managers, but also for insurance companies, which adjust rates (or deny policies) on structures in those areas.

 

 

Eleven of 15 of swine farms located in Brunswick County are located in or adjacent to a 100-year flood plain.

But as these maps show, many farms remain in the 100-year flood plains. There simply isn’t enough state funding, even with federal matching grants, to buy them all. In Brunswick County, for example, nearly every farm is in or touching the flood plain.

 

Of the 50 swine farms in Columbus County, about half lie within or near the 100-year floodplain.

 

Also near the coast, just north of Wilmington, Columbus County is home to the fresh-water Lake Waccamaw, the anchor of a state park popular with boaters and fishers. One swine farm lies just northeast of there, in the flood plain that is a natural part of the geography.

Craven County has 30 permitted swine farms, more than half of which are in or touch the 100-year flood plain.

Craven County, among the areas that took the brunt of Hurricane Florence, is veined by the Neuse River. All of the hog farms lie upstream of where the river enters the Pamlico Sound and its sensitive estuaries before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. About half of those farms are situated in flood-prone zones.

 

Environment

DEQ: Initial test results show arsenic below drinking water standards in Neuse River near HF Lee plant

Photo: NC Department of Environmental Quality

The Department of Environmental Quality says its first round of sampling showed arsenic concentrations in the Neuse River were below drinking water standards.

The agency released the initial test results last night. On Sept. 23, environmental officials took samples from three locations: upstream and downstream of the HF Lee plant and near a railroad trestle at the Neuse River. Flooding from Hurricane Florence had inundated the inactive coal ash basins, which are covered in trees and other vegetation, washing coal ash byproducts into the river and its tributaries.

Arsenic levels were 2 parts per million, below the drinking water standard of 10 ppm. Concentrations of barium, mercury, selenium, nickel and mercury were also below those limits.

The results are similar to Duke Energy’s tests, which indicated arsenic peaking at 1.7 ppm. The utility conducted its testing from Sept. 19 to 22.

However, both results sharply contrast with those conducted by the Waterkeeper Alliance, which collected samples from different locations than the state and the utility. It sampled water on Sept. 19 from near the inactive coal basins, which indicated arsenic concentrations were all above the 10 parts per million maximum allowable concentration for drinking water supplies, peaking at 186 ppm. There were also elevated levels of vanadium and strontium, although there is no federal drinking water standard for those chemicals.

agriculture, Environment

After Hurricane Florence, state to restart its buyout program for hog farms in the flood plain

A hog lagoon is flooded after Hurricane Florence. Forty-six lagoons in eastern North Carolina were flooded, discharged wastewater or sustained structural damage. At least another 60 nearly flooded, according to reports from the farmers to state environmental officials. This photo was taken on Sept. 17, 2018. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Note: This is the first in a series of posts this week about the swine farm buyout program, which will culminate in a larger story Thursday morning. The coverage will include maps of more than a dozen counties and the locations of their flood plains and hog farms. Today’s installment gives readers a brief background on the program, which started in 1999, but has not been funded since 2007.

After 11 years and two major hurricanes, the state is resurrecting its chronically underfunded swine farm buyout program, which pays farmers to close their hog operations that are located in the 100-year flood plain.

An NC Department of Agriculture spokesperson told Policy Watch the agency plans to open the next round of applications later this week. The buyout funds are used to close lagoons, decommission farms, purchase swine production and development rights, and establish conservation easements in areas prone to flooding. The program is voluntary and intended to reduce environmental damage, particularly to waterways, from inundated lagoons. The farmers can still plant row crops on that land or raise livestock on pasture.

The program launched in 1999 after a trifecta of hurricanes — Dennis, Floyd and Irene — pummeled North Carolina. Since then, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund has allocated a total of $18.7 million in grants in four rounds of buyouts: 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2007.

The federal government chipped in another $941,000.

Scroll down for a spreadsheet of the funding totals per county.

But no state funding has been available for buyouts since 2007. Since then, two major hurricanes and eight minor hurricanes or tropical storms have flooded parts of eastern North Carolina. And last month, 46 lagoons in eastern North Carolina were flooded, discharged wastewater into adjacent land or streams, or sustained structural damage as the result of Hurricane Florence. At least another 60 nearly overtopped, according to reports from the farmers to state environmental officials.

In April, the federal government awarded the state agriculture department nearly $2.5 million for the fifth round of buyouts. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler secured another $2.5 million in state funds, bringing the total to $5 million.

 

However, that money doesn’t go as far as it used to. For example, in 2001, the state spent $5.4 million to buy out 20 farms. In 2007, though, the state spent nearly $2.5 million for just four farms. The increase in purchase prices is due in part to the price per pound of live hogs, which nearly doubled between 1999 and 2007.

Even with $18.7 million, the state still can’t meet the demand for the program, according to a 2016 presentation given to the legislature by David Williams, deputy director of the state Division of Soil and Water Conservation, shortly after Hurricane Matthew. The program has accepted just a third of the 138 producers who submitted applications — 43.

The applications are ranked based on several criteria: the facility’s history of flooding, distance to a water supply or high-quality waters, structural condition of the lagoons and the elevation of the hog barns and lagoon dikes to the 100-year flood plain.

A 100-year flood plain is defined as an area that has a 1 percent chance each year of major flooding in any given year. A 500-year flood plain is where the annual chances are 0.2 percent.

In the table below, farms that received payments spread over multiple years were counted only once, as were their hogs and acreage. The data was current as of 2016, when this update was presented to the legislature. Farms whose payments were split over two rounds of funding were counted only once.

CountyNo. of FarmsNo. of HogsAcres in EasementBid
Beaufort612,382
316$4.6 million
Craven11,20025$205,703
Duplin712,120278$2.1 million
Edgecombe34,225106$553,900
Gates11206$75,000
Halifax22,00045$810,000
Hyde385052$1.17 million
Jones13,16333$598,583
Onslow13,67225$554,800
Pender1505$96,500
Perquimans32,825138$545,000
Pitt24,33020$2 million
Robeson19020$162,601
Tyrrell34,091101$779,376
Washington34,10095$587,327
Total3855,2181,265$14.7 million
Environment

Riverkeepers find high levels of arsenic in Neuse; Duke Energy says groups is using hurricane to “advance extreme agenda”

The Waterkeeper Alliance today announced results of four samples from the Neuse River showing high levels of arsenic in surface water near Duke Energy’s HF Lee plant. The samples were collected on Sept. 19 from areas near the utility’s inactive coal ash basins, which were flooded during Hurricane Florence.

According to Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr, who boated to the basins, he collected four samples — three water and one soil — upstream of the City of Goldsboro’s water supply intake. The arsenic concentrations were all above the 10 parts per million maximum allowable concentration for drinking water supplies, peaking at 186 ppm.

Levels of strontium ranged from 22.3 to 1,300 ppt. There is no federal drinking water standard for strontium. Currently EPA uses a one-day health advisory level of 25 ppm.

Vanadium concentrations peaked at 102 ppm. The EPA has not set a standard for the chemical in drinking water.

The testing detected hexavalent chromium in only one sample, at 0.58 ppm.

“It is very troubling that these ash ponds continue to release toxic pollution that harms aquatic life,” said Donna Lisenby, Waterkeeper Alliance’s manager of global advocacy.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has conducted its own sampling, but those results have yet to be released. Those regarding the Lee plant are expected this afternoon, according to a DEQ spokesperson.

Duke Energy released results of its testing, conducted Sept. 18 through 22, that indicated arsenic levels peaking at only 1.7 ppm. However, these samples were not taken at the inactive coal ash basins, but rather both upstream and downstream of the plant, the latter being at Stevens Mill bridge down from the cooling pond.

Duke Energy spokesperson Erin Culbert said the utility’s test results “continue to show very little difference between the quality upstream of the HF Lee Plant and downstream of the plant. The Neuse River meets all surface water standards that the state has established for protecting health and the environment.”

Culbert accused the Waterkeeper Alliance of using the hurricane “to advance their extreme agenda to excavate all coal ash basins. That would burden North Carolinians with the most expensive, most disruptive plan that can do more harm to the environment than good. They wish to excavate all ash, with no viable solution on where it would go, while we believe science and engineering should inform site-specific plans.”

Culbert said the waterkeepers “likely tested cenospheres,” hollow balls of coal ash byproducts that contain aluminum, silica, arsenic and lead. Starr said he did not collect cenospheres and the highest levels of arsenic were in water.

Environmental advocates and community members have demanded that Duke excavate all of its ash basins. However, the utility plans to cap the ash in lined landfills onsite at five plants: Belews Creek, Cliffside, Roxboro, Mayo and Marshall.

Earlier this week, two university scientists criticized Duke’s sampling in a story published in The News & Observer,stating that testing river sediment would reveal a more accurate extent of contamination.

As the utility did after Hurricane Matthew two years ago, it will monitor water quality both in the Cape Fear and the Neuse for at least several months.