As of press time, Hurricane Florence has claimed nearly 40 lives and caused extensive destruction in the hardest-hit areas of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Environmental analysts will have their work cut out for them as they attempt to measure the environmental impact of the storm. At present, we have detected three current areas of primary environmental concern — risk to nuclear sites, the spread of coal ash waste, and the flooding of industrial farms.
The Carolinas are uniquely situated in that they are home to over a dozen nuclear reactors, 2,100 industrial-scale pork farms, and two dozen coal ash pits. Following the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2012, U.S. nuclear reactors were required to update their flood safety mechanisms. While North Carolina’s reactors are still vulnerable until the flood waters recede, they seem to have successfully withstood the worst of the wind and flooding. The industrial farms and coal ash pits, however, are open to the elements. These sites are being watched closely as the storm is winding down, as high winds and extreme flooding could have caused previously contained hazardous material to be spread throughout the area.
As we previously reported, coal ash is the waste that is left after coal is burned. Most coal ash comes from coal-fired electric power plants. Coal ash is linked to respiratory illnesses and cancer, and contains heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium. As of Sunday evening, the Charlotte Business Journal reported that “rains from Florence undermined part of the berm protecting the lined landfill at Duke Energy’s Sutton Power Plant,” which could have released coal ash into Sutton Lake. Sutton Lake is the man-made cooling pond built by Duke Energy to service the power plant, but has been classified as a waterway by the EPA so that it could be subject to monitoring and regulation. The overflow incident allegedly occurred on Saturday evening, and the spokesman for Duke Energy stated that he believed there was only a small amount of coal ash that could have gotten into the lake. He emphasized that “no ash escaped from any of Duke’s inactive coal-ash ponds still at the site.”
As of September 9, 2018, it is currently estimated that 2,000 cubic yards of ash were displaced at the Sutton Power Plaint outside Wilmington, and that contaminated runoff likely flowed into the plant’s cooling pond.
Duke Energy has been accused of failing to remediate its coal ash policies as quickly as other plants in South Carolina. With the intensity of Florence’s flooding still being measured, it is possible that even more than 2,000 yards of ash spread into the lake. A coal ash infiltration of any significant magnitude would require extensive monitoring and eventual remediation, and could cause untold drinking water impacts to the already hard-hit area. The Southern Environmental Law Center is monitoring the situation at the Sutton Power station and is awaiting more information on the extent of the damage.
As for the industrial farming operations affected by Florence, North Carolina is one of the largest hog-farming locales in the entire nation. In fact, eastern North Carolina has been called the “cesspool of the United States,” by a senior adviser to the Waterkeeper Alliance, due to the abundance of bovine fecal waste generated by the farms. Each farm holds thousands of hogs in tightly packed feeding buildings. The waste produced by hogs is collected into “lagoons,” which are located below the slatted floors of the buildings in which the hogs are held. The waste is emptied into an outdoor pit lined with clay. The New Yorker reports that North Carolina has about four thousand such lagoons, many near the coast. During a storm like Florence, the pits can flood and spread fecal matter throughout the region with untold health effects. In attempting to prepare for the storms, local operations increased their routine spraying of waste from the pits onto local farmland to act as manure. The spraying process has the effect of lowering the levels of the waste pits and reduces the risk of flooding. Although the operators say this procedure is safe, recent lawsuits have been brought against the hog operations, alleging that the odor of the pits and the smell of the spray adversely affected the quality of life of surrounding neighborhoods. In May, Smithfield Foods was leveled with a fifty-million dollar judgment as a result of such a lawsuit.
The effect of the storm on the hog farms has not yet been determined. If runoff from the lagoons reaches public water supplies, they may become contaminated with pollutants that are known to be hazardous to human health, such as E. coli or salmonella, which could make drinking water and recreational waters dangerous.
We’ll report back on the impacts of Hurricane Florence as the situation unfolds.