Environment

The Other Floods from Hurricane Florence

As flood waters rise from Hurricane Florence’s aftermath, manure from hog farms and toxic coal ash from power plants threaten to pollute waterways and damage critical aquifers.

Aerial view of the aftermath of Hurricane and then Tropical Storm Florence, taken from a South Carolina National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from McEntire Joint National Guard Base. The image covers sections of Florence, Nichols, Conway and Waccamaw, South Carolina, and was taken on September 21, 2018. Photo: South Carolina Air National Guard.

As Hurricane Florence came ashore in the Carolinas, it mercifully did so without the Category 4 winds originally expected. Instead, it did something which is turning out also to be life-threatening. It stalled over the lands and covered a wide swath of the area with record rainfall.

That rainfall dumped an estimated 9 trillion gallons of water on North Carolina alone. 36 inches of rain pummeled Swansboro, North Carolina, and access to many cities, notably Wilmington among them, has been cut off as floods have washed out bridges and disintegrated roads. In South Carolina, the town of Loris was drenched with 24 inches of rain.

As the rain subsides, Florence’s damage has proved far from over. The rivers and other tributaries within the affected area are still cresting in some places. Standing water has also continued to cause damage to crops and arable land, not to mention continuing to undermine houses and other structures. The waters will also cause toxic chemicals and other materials to breach inside warehouses or other storage areas, causing chemicals to seep or spew into the flowing waters.

There are also many non-human deaths being counted across the region, including an estimated 5,500 hogs along with 3.4 million chickens and turkeys which died in the storm.

North Carolina, the second-biggest hog farming state in the United States, has been particularly hard hit by those deaths. Although that is a tragedy, another hog-related storm disaster is looming which could create a far more serious long-term problem.

According to the Department of Environmental Quality, 31 of the hog waste holding areas known as “swine lagoons” filled with manure and other deposits have already overflowed. 6 are seriously damaged in some way and could give way completely. Another 99 are considered close to overflowing. All those situations could get worse if any other rains hit the region.

On top of that, on September 15 North Carolina state officials said a coal-ash landfill near Wilmington, North Carolina had breached. Coal ash, of the many hazards of coal-fired power plants and yet another reason why they should be phased out rapidly, is a by-product formed from the burned coal. It contains dangerous and often carcinogenic compounds such as led, arsenic, mercury and sometimes even uranium.

The landfall was tied to the L.V. Sutton Power Station, owned by Duke Energy. According to Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan, an estimated 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash was flushed out of the company’s landfill site there. That works out to the equivalent of 180 dump trucks worth of toxic chemicals. Duke claims they it stopped the outflow, but before that happened it had already dumped at least some of the contents into regional waterways.

State and federal officials are expected to investigate the spill further as soon as it is safe to do so. Part of why is that Duke has already come under heavy criticism for how it manages all of its coal ash and tailings pits. In 2014, a drainage pipe broke under another of Duke’s coal ash waste pits at another shuttered plant in Eden, North Carolina. That pipe collapse created a record spill which eventually left a sludge-filled coal ash slick running 70 miles long in the Dan River. Duke was charged with many violations after that happened, included illegally releasing polluted waste from coal-ash dumps at five of its plants. The company ended up paying fines totaling $102 million as a settlement from the incident.

Duke Energy is currently working to close all its coal ash sites. That unfortunately will not be complete until 2029, 11 years from now.

For now, Duke Energy said it has tested the waterways near where the toxic coal ash dumped out this time. It said in a statement that, “initial test results announced [September 19] demonstrate water quality is good”. Suspicious from Duke’s mismanagement of the 2014 Eden toxic discharge, several environmental groups intend to do their own testing.

State officials also will be checking Duke’s data in the next few days. Megan S. Thorpe, a spokewoman at North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, said in a statement, “DEQ has been closely monitoring all coal ash impoundments that could be vulnerable in this record breaking rain event.” She also said after the state determines the level of damage caused by Duke’s spill, the state will “hold the utility accountable for implementing the solution that ensures the protection of public health and the environment”.

In addition to the Sutton coal ash overflow which is currently being examined, there are also two other coal-fired power plants Duke owns in the state that will be examined for damage there.

In addition to animal farm manure runoffs and the coal ash toxic overflows, North Carolina is also concerned about growing bacterial levels in waterways from other flooding runoffs. Teams are expected to head out to inspect this further in the coming weeks. With roadways still out and flooding still high, it is still early to assess all of this hidden damage to the state’s underlying aquifers and water systems.