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Hurricane Florence Is a Public Health Emergency, Too

Overflows bring a number of health risks. “You don’t want hog waste flowing freely for the same reasons you wouldn’t want sewage flowing freely into the river and the house,” Gisler said. Feces is a breeding ground for bacterial pathogens like salmonella and giardia, and exposure via drinking water could cause experience a number of gastrointestinal problems. Exposure via open wounds or other mucous membranes could cause E. coli.

North Carolina has seen this before. During Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the manure lagoons from dozens of hog farms spilled “over thousands of acres of private and public lands and into the watersheds of four rivers that feed the second-largest estuary system in the nation,” according to the environmental news site Coastal Review. The storm’s extreme rainfall also killed more than 20,000 hogs, whose drowned bodies’ were scattered across the coastal landscape. The state legislature passed a moratorium on new manure lagoons after Floyd, but critics say little has been done to reduce the number of them across the state.

This also happened, to a lesser degree, in 2016, when Hurricane Matthew submerged 14 hog manure lagoons. That time, farmers managed to pump out some waste before the storm hit, and used it as fertilizer on nearby fields. Pork farmers have been doing the same thing this week, in preparation for Florence. But Gisler says this solution is inadequate because once heavy rainfall starts, fecal matter spread on farmland will still run off into waterways and seep into groundwater.

There’s also concern about overflows from North Carolina’s huge pits of coal ash—the waste left over from coal burning. This byproduct—which often includes metals like lead, mercury, arsenic, chromium, and selenium—is often stored in unlined pits next to lakes and rivers, because coal plants need to be near water sources to generate steam. North Carolina has at least two dozen of these pits, many of which are located alongside major river systems like the Neuse, Cape Fear, and Lumber—all in Florence’s projected path.

Eastern North Carolina is the worst place a hurricane could come in terms of coal ash risk to communities,” said Frank Holleman, an SELC senior attorney who works on the issue. “These sites are dangerous when the sun is shining,” he said, referring to past spills that sullied local drinking water sources with toxic gook. “But when you have high winds, floodwaters, storm surges, and then flooding from heavy rains, each these sites is a cause of serious concern for communities and rivers throughout coastal North Carolina.”

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