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Environmentalists worry that Florence will leave behind a toxic mess in North Carolina

Environmentalists worry that Florence will leave behind a toxic mess in North Carolina
Rick Dove, 79, a senior advisor with the Waterkeeper Alliance, photographs flooded hog farms from the back seat of a Cessna on Tuesday afternoon in North Carolina. Environmentalists are worried about runoff from manure lagoons. (Chris Megerian / Los Angeles Times)

Rick Dove is an environmental paparazzo operating at more than 1,000 feet above the ground.

A senior advisor with the Waterkeeper Alliance, he circles the floodwaters from Hurricane Florence in the back seat of a tiny propeller plane, gripping his camera while searching for toxic problems below.

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Like a shutterbug hunting for a scandal-plagued celebrity, he points the pilot toward a hog farm near the overflowing Trent River in eastern North Carolina. There are two open-air lagoons where waste from the animals is deposited, and one appears to have been inundated.

Some of the manure may have escaped, seeping back into the river and contributing to hazards that environmentalists have been warning about since before Florence made landfall Friday morning.

“They said they fixed it so it wouldn’t happen again,” said Dove, 79. “Well, Mother Nature had different ideas.”

Hog farms are one of the most problematic environmental challenges after Florence dumped a historic amount of rain on the region, but they’re far from the only one. Advocates have been keeping a close eye on coal ash basins, where the residue from power plants is stored, and toxic sites across the state. Floodwaters can rise high enough to mix with contaminants and then deposit them back into rivers and wetlands that provide drinking water and natural habitats.

These fears have existed for years in a low-lying state with a network of rivers that can disperse pollutants for miles. Now climate change is increasing concerns that storms like Florence will strike more often, altering the calculus for where industries will be safe from flooding.

"This is a time to recognize that there's a new normal in environmental protection right now,” said Thomas A. Burke, an associate dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In the past, powerful storms have prompted sweeping changes in North Carolina. After Hurricane Floyd battered the state in 1999 and dead hogs floated in the floodwaters, the state bought out farms in vulnerable areas.

It remains to be seen whether Florence will prompt similar policy changes, with farms or any other industry. Researchers and advocates said it’s time to update rules for where facilities can be located and how waste can be stored as hurricanes appear to be growing more common and bring heavier rainfall with them.

“These are changes that are consistent with what we would see from the effects of climate change,” said Martin Doyle, a Duke University professor who studies rivers. “It’s a totally different calculus.”

Florence has caused havoc with the state’s infrastructure since it began hammering the coastline last week. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority lost electricity as the storm arrived, and then a backup generator failed. About 5.25 million gallons of partially treated wastewater were released in the nearby river before it was safe for workers to repair the generator.

“It was unavoidable,” Jim Flechtner, the utility’s executive director. “It’s just not safe to send people out in high winds and heavy rains.”

Another problem was suffered at a shuttered Duke Energy power plant near Wilmington, in the southeastern corner of the state. About 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash were displaced when water ran into a landfill, although it’s unclear how much reached the nearby Cape Fear River.

Monitoring trouble spots is a severe challenge after a hurricane. The same floods that have trapped people in their homes have also cut regulators off from the facilities they need to monitor. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to deploy teams Wednesday to high-priority toxic sites, and state officials are trying to do the same.

“Many roads are still impassable, so it is not safe to inspect,” said Megan Thorpe, the communications director for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

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The challenge is why the Waterkeeper Alliance, which monitors rivers, lakes and other waterways for pollution, has been relying on a tiny air force of four prop planes, clocking more than a dozen hours in the sky since Monday. All of them have been taking off out of a small regional airport in New Bern, where metal siding from damaged hangars, shorn off by the hurricane, still litter the ground.

Dove has been taking environmental reconnaissance flights for a quarter of a century, and Tuesday’s flight was his second after Florence. The Cessna 172 bumps through the air like a low-riding jalopy on a pockmarked country road. It’s roughly the size of an original Volkswagen Beetle with wings attached, and nearly as old too.

A hog farm near the Trent River in North Carolina. The pink lagoon, which gets its color from bacteria, appears untouched, but the other seems to have been inundated by floodwater. It's unclear whether any of the waste might have escaped the berms.
A hog farm near the Trent River in North Carolina. The pink lagoon, which gets its color from bacteria, appears untouched, but the other seems to have been inundated by floodwater. It's unclear whether any of the waste might have escaped the berms. (Chris Megerian / Los Angeles Times)

The pilot, Aaron Stranathan, 21, is in no rush to return to land, indulging Dove’s requests to bank left and right to get the best shot of a flooded farm.

“The longer you want to fly, the longer I can wait before I go home to no power,” said Stranathan, who lives in Newport, N.C.

Dove doesn’t have any electricity back at his house either, relying on a generator since the storm knocked out power. He lives along the Neuse River about a dozen miles from downtown New Bern, a city that had some of the worst flooding in the state. His house was generally unscathed, but his boat dock was destroyed.

There are 3,300 hog lagoons in North Carolina, according to state regulators. Four have suffered Florence-related structural damage of some kind. Some waste may have escaped 13 others during flooding, another nine have been inundated, and dozens more remain at risk. The numbers are reported by the farmers themselves.

“So far, we seem to be weathering this storm pretty well, especially in light of the Armageddon-type reporting we’ve seen,” said Michael Formica, an assistant vice president at the National Pork Producers Council.

He added, “The forecasts are detached from reality.”

Dove isn’t so sure, and from the air he spots what he thinks could be a small breach in the side of a lagoon. The waste is pink from the bacteria that breed inside, and traces of the color outside of the berms could signal a problem.

“See where there’s a little bit of pink there?” Dove says, pointing. “Looks like there’s a cut there.”

The camera clicks, and then Dove guides the plane toward Duplin County, the heart of North Carolina’s pork industry. Even at 1,300 feet and nearly 100 knots, there’s a brief whiff of manure with the Cessna’s windows open. Flooded farms stretch across the landscape, the water shimmering in the sunlight as it saturates fields, homes and roads.

Hog farmers were barred from building new lagoons in 1997, but they weren’t required to close the old ones. North Carolina is one of the top states in the country for pork production, with 9 million hogs in the state.

“The pork industry is incredibly powerful in North Carolina,” said Alexis Andiman, an associate attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law organization. “State regulators haven’t done enough.”

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The North Carolina Pork Council said it prepared for the hurricane by lowering the levels of the lagoons to accommodate more rainwater, using the manure as fertilizer in nearby fields.

“Our guys have more attention on them, and have had more attention on them, than anyone else,” Formica said. “And they do a heck of a job.”

It could be days, weeks or even months before the full extent of the damage from Florence becomes known. Rivers are still expected to rise, and flooding could reach more farms, coal ash basins and other industrial sites.

It’s a slow process that can hurt the ecosystem and the people who live there. And fixing the problems can be just as slow.

"Environmental protection is the long-term problem, long after the media has gone,” Burke said. "Recovery is really tough, and you have to keep people safe through the entire process.

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