Riverkeeper Matthew Star collects water sample from floodwaters after Florence.
Waterkeeper Matthew Star collects a water sample from floodwaters. Courtesy of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Damage estimates from the torrential rains of Hurricane Florence are just starting to be tallied, but they already figure to top the damage from floodwaters from its predecessors Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

With Matthew and the floods that followed still fresh in mind, the environmental concerns are much the same as well.

There is concern about the impact on the livestock industry that populates the flooded counties upriver in the Cape Fear, Lumber and Neuse watersheds. There’s also concern downstream for massive legacy coal ash basins that sit in the floodplains near Wilmington and Goldsboro.

Although a massive rush of water moving east through the watersheds is still causing flooding, most counties have shifted the focus from rescue to recovery.

Part of that process involves assessing the damage and teams from both the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Department of Environmental Quality are in the field reviewing the extent of environmental impacts.

In livestock mortality, one of the major worries as the floodwaters cut off more agriculture operations inland, Florence has already surpassed Matthew.

Early estimates, based mainly on reports from poultry and hog operations, put the numbers lost at 5,500 hogs and about 3.4 million chickens and turkeys, more than double Matthew’s total in both categories.

As of noon Friday, DEQ reported six hog waste ponds with structural damage, 31 discharges due to ponds overtopped by floodwaters and another 23 inundated. An additional 76 ponds are full, or have little or no remaining space.

In a statement released earlier this week, the North Carolina Pork Council said most of the roughly 3,300 ponds weathered the storm.

“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 Pork Council statement said.

“We believe that the result of this storm will be similar to what has occurred in previous events.”

The statement noted that a DEQ report released after Hurricane Matthew said the large volume of water from the storms diluted much of the ponds’ contamination.

Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr said he expects the damage reports to rise, since the storm’s impact was concentrated in the Cape Fear River basin where there’s a high density of hog and poultry operations.

Starr said he and other riverkeepers are working to assess the volume of animal waste that spread into the watershed.

The amount of hog waste and the number of hog operations affected are easier to determine than the poultry impacts, since those operations are not under the same requirements as the swine industry.

The dead birds will likely be composted on site under a system developed after about 1.8 million birds were killed in Hurricane Matthew.

Composting usually takes place within the chicken houses where the birds are piled up and mixed with sawdust.

Coal ash

The storm’s impact on coal ash basins is also similar to that seen two years ago.

On Thursday, Starr inspected areas around Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee generating station in Goldsboro. As in Hurricane Matthew, coal ash basins at the plant were inundated. Starr and others have been following up on reports of coal ash gushing into floodwaters near the plant.

Flooding at the company’s Sutton generating plant near Wilmington also caused breaches at coal ash basins near that plant.

On Friday concerns about breaches at nearby Sutton Lake and potential threats to the plant caused a shutdown of the natural gas generator at the plant. A statement from the company said the lined landfill where most the coal ash at the plant is contained is not threatened at this point.

DEQ issued a statement about the situation at Sutton Lake late Friday afternoon:

Teams from three Department of Environmental Quality regulatory divisions have been monitoring conditions at Duke Energy’s Sutton facility, remaining in close contact with onsite engineers throughout the week. This morning, state dam safety officials were notified of a breach of between 100 and 200 feet at the south end of Sutton Lake. There appear to be no structural issues with the Sutton Lake Dam at this time. Reports indicate that floodwaters from the Cape Fear River are flowing into the lake from the north and back into the river on the south. River flooding has also impacted one of two inactive ash basins at the facility. The second inactive ash basin is currently not impacted by flooding. DEQ’s dam safety engineers are now coordinating with NCDOT to conduct drone inspections to determine real-time site conditions. While the state is currently in emergency response mode, a thorough investigation of events will soon follow to ensure that Duke Energy is held responsible for any environmental impacts caused by their coal ash facilities.”

Starr said almost nothing was done to clean up coal ash released during the last storm and the repeat of coal ash spills and livestock waste are an indication that little has changed since Matthew.

“Our water is under attack from these storms,” he said. “It’s really frustrating because the same things we talked about during Matthew, we’re talking about again.”

Since the 2016 storm, he said, “not a single shovelful of coal ash has been removed from the Lee plant.”

Star said a state buyout after Hurricane Floyd killed tens of thousands of hogs led to 43 farms being moved out of the 100-year floodplain.

Since that program ended, he said, the idea of moving farms out of the way hasn’t progressed much farther despite the threats.

“I can tell you that before Matthew there were 62 industrial hog operations in the 100-year floodplain and today there are still 62 in the floodplain,” he said.

Without more of a commitment from the state, he said, the same thing will be repeated in the next storm.

“The solution isn’t just to throw you hands up and air and do nothing,” Starr said. “We can do a lot to mitigate the impact.”

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Kirk Ross was the former capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. To contact the Carolina Public Press newsroom, email info@carolinapublicpress.org.

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