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. Read more