Dan Murphy: Requiem for Waste Lagoons?

Lagoons must be managed correctly, but even then, disasters can happen. ( National Pork Board )

Whenever a hurricane makes landfall, the news footage of flooded homes and businesses, of roads turned into rivers and of residents patrolling the streets in rafts and boats is heart-wrenching.

The people in those areas have had their lives and livelihoods uprooted, and it likely will takes years — if ever — to fully recover.

Across North Carolina, the center of Hurricane Florence’s impact, there is an additional layer of concern unique to that area: the flooding of manure lagoons operated by pork producers based in the state’s hardest-hit eastern counties.

As USA Today reported, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality initially announced that 21 lagoons had “overtopped.” Ultimately, it was calculated that as many as 89 lagoons across the state were at imminent risk of “releasing animal waste,” according to the most recent data issued by the state’s DEQ.

The problem of flooded lagoons is nothing new. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd flooded an estimated 50 waste lagoons statewide, with half a dozen suffering structural breaches, according to the North Carolina Pork Council; in 2016, Hurricane Matthew flooded “only 11 lagoons.”

Granted, there are thousands of manure lagoons across all of North Carolina, so it’s technically accurate to announce that only a very small number, relative to the total, were flooded and/or breached by the hurricane’s relentless rainfall.

But to suggest that, “We do not believe … that there are widespread impacts to the more than 2,000 anaerobic treatment lagoons in the state,” as the North Carolina Pork Council stated in a news release last week, is of little consolation to people in the immediate areas where manure has now surged into flooded rivers and streams.

Misleading Terminology
Even more troubling, as far as local residents are concerned, the Council then doubled down on its assertion that any environmental damage should be kept in perspective.

“While we are dismayed by the release of some liquids from some lagoons, we also understand that what has been released from the farms is the result of a once-in-a-lifetime storm and that the contents are highly diluted with rainwater,” the Council’s initial Sept. 19 online post stated.

Haven’t we learned by now that referring to hurricanes as “once in a lifetime storms,” or their impact as “100-year floods,” suggesting that such an occurrence will “never happen again” is, to be charitable, seriously inaccurate?

In addition, announcing that manure was “diluted with rainwater” isn’t exactly a comforting thought. Every time raw sewage overflows some city’s storm sewers and empties untreated into a local river or lake, it’s because of dilution with rainwater! However, that doesn’t change the fact that raw sewage and the bacteria that make it toxic have polluted local water sources.

The flooding in North Carolina and the subsequent release of millions of gallons of manure entering local waterways isn’t a case of arguing whether the lagoons are half full or half empty, so to speak, nor whether 80, 90 or 100 flooded lagoons out of several thousand statewide is a big deal or a little deal.

For affected residents, it’s huge deal; for the public at large, it’s an ecological black mark on the pork industry as a whole.

Time for Change
Granted, I’m no expert on how best to handle hog manure. I’m only asking the question: Is it time to acknowledge that there could be — ought to be — a better way?

Isn’t it past time for industry groups to stop insisting that people and policymakers must accept the fact that, on occasion, storms will overwhelm manure lagoons? That the toxic aftereffects of such breaches are merely the cost of doing business?

Throughout history, when man-made ecological impacts have overwhelmed natural systems, societies have leveraged science and technology to develop better, more efficient, more environmentally friendly systems to deal with the damage.

It’s hard to believe now, but for decades at the turn of the 20th century (and beyond), municipal wastewater “engineers” in Seattle set up a system that simply pumped raw sewage into the waters of Puget Sound on whose shores the city was developing. The idea was that if the discharge was done at high tide, it would be “washed out” to sea as the tide went out.

Of course, the next high tide washed much of that waste right back at the city, whose waterfront became notorious for its horrifying stench.

I’m not suggesting that properly managed lagoons are of piece with a sewer system so unsophisticated that the solution originally proposed for Seattle’s sewage problem was constructing a much longer discharge pipe.

But to suggest that giant lagoons swimming in manure represent the very best that 21st century science could possibly devise is akin to Seattle’s longer pipe proposal a century ago.

There has to be a better way, and the pork industry would be well-served to start researching alternatives before another “storm of the century” hits pork country.

Sometime in the next few years.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.