Hurricane could flood many waste sites, creating toxic brew


The heavy rain expected from Hurricane Florence could flood hog manure pits, coal ash dumps and other industrial sites in North Carolina, creating a noxious witches' brew of waste that might wash into homes and threaten drinking water supplies.

Computer models predict more than 3 feet of rain in the eastern part of the state, a fertile low-lying plain veined by brackish rivers with a propensity for escaping their banks. Longtime locals don't have to strain their imaginations to foresee what rain like that can do. It's happened before.

In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd came ashore near Cape Fear as a Category 2 storm that dumped about 2 feet of water on a region already soaked days earlier by Hurricane Dennis. The result was the worst natural disaster in state history, a flood that killed dozens of people and left whole towns underwater, their residents stranded on rooftops.

The bloated carcasses of hundreds of thousands of hogs, chickens and other drowned livestock bobbed in a nose-stinging soup of fecal matter, pesticides, fertilizer and gasoline so toxic that fish flopped helplessly on the surface to escape it. Rescue workers smeared Vick's Vapo-Rub under their noses to try to numb their senses against the stench.

Florence is forecast to make landfall in the same region as a much stronger storm.

"This one is pretty scary," said Jamie Kruse, director of the Center for Natural Hazards Research at East Carolina University. "The environmental impacts will be from concentrated animal feeding operations and coal ash pits. Until the system gets flushed out, there's going to be a lot of junk in the water."

North Carolina has roughly 2,100 industrial-scale pork farms containing more than 9 million hogs — typically housed in long metal sheds with grated floors designed to allow the animals' urine and feces to fall through and flow into nearby open-air pits containing millions of gallons of untreated sewage.

During Floyd, dozens of these lagoons either breached or were overtopped by floodwaters, spilling the contents. State taxpayers ended up buying out and closing 43 farms located in floodplains.

To prepare for Florence, the North Carolina Pork Council says its members have pumped down lagoon levels to absorb at least 2 feet of rain. Low-lying farms have been moving their hogs to higher ground.

"Our farmers and others in the pork industry are working together to take precautions that will protect our farms, our animals and our environment," said Brandon Warren, the pork council's president and a hog farmer. "The preparations for a hurricane began long before the past few hours or days. Our farmers take hurricane threats extremely seriously."

The Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday that it would be monitoring nine toxic waste cleanup sites near the Carolinas coast for potential flooding. More than a dozen such Superfund sites in and around Houston flooded last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, with spills of potentially hazardous materials reported at two.

Also of concern are more than two dozen massive coal ash pits operated by Duke Energy, the state's primary electricity provider. The gray ash that remains after coal is burned contains potentially harmful amounts of mercury, arsenic and lead.

Since power plants need vast amounts of water to generate steam, their unlined waste pits are located along lakes and rivers. Some of the pits were inundated during past storms, including during Floyd and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

After a 2014 spill at a Duke plant coated 70 miles of the Dan River in toxic gray sludge, state regulators forced the Charlotte-based company to begin phasing out its coal ash pits by 2029. Because that work was already underway, wastewater levels inside the ash ponds have been falling, Duke Energy spokesman Bill Norton said Tuesday.

"We're more prepared than ever," said Norton, adding that crews will be monitoring water levels at the pits throughout the storm.

The company is also preparing for potential shutdown of nuclear reactors at least two hours before the arrival of hurricane-force winds. Duke operates 11 reactors at six sites in the Carolinas, including the Brunswick Nuclear Plant located south of Wilmington near the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

The Brunswick plant's two reactors are of the same design as those in Fukushima, Japan, that exploded and leaked radiation following a 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Following that disaster, federal regulators required all U.S. nuclear plants to perform upgrades to better withstand earthquakes and flooding.

Duke Energy did not respond to requests for information about specific changes made at Brunswick, other than to say emergency generators and pumps will remove stormwater at the plant if it floods. The company issued assurances this week that it is ready for Florence, which is predicted to pack winds of up to 140 miles per hour and a 13-foot storm surge.

"They were safe then. They are even safer now," said Kathryn Green, a Duke spokeswoman, referring to the post-Fukushima improvements. "We have backups for backups for backups."

___

Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington and Alex Derosier in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

___

Follow AP investigative reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck .


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Nation & World

FAU poll shows tight race between Scott-Nelson and Gillum-DeSantis
FAU poll shows tight race between Scott-Nelson and Gillum-DeSantis

After defying the pollsters to win Florida’s Democratic primary for governor last month, Andrew Gillum has become the toast of the polling crowd in early surveys of the nationally watched general election race against Republican Ron DeSantis. Gillum, who did not lead in any publicly released polls before his stunning Aug. 28 primary win, is the...
Delta raises checked baggage fees
Delta raises checked baggage fees

Delta Air Lines is increasing the fee to check bags, matching moves by some other carriers. Delta now charges $30 for a first checked bag and $40 for a second checked bag. That’s up $5 from the previous fees of $25 for a first checked bag and $35 for a second checked bag. United Airlines and JetBlue Airways have put in place similar...
Millions of US teens are vaping marijuana; FDA launches crackdown amid ‘epidemic’
Millions of US teens are vaping marijuana; FDA launches crackdown amid ‘epidemic’

A new report from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that more than 2 million American teens have used an e-cigarette to vape marijuana >> Read more trending news  The new data, based on a representative sample of middle and high school students questioned in the 2016 National Youth Tobacco...
Investigative files on Jacob Wetterling abduction, murder to be made public Thursday
Investigative files on Jacob Wetterling abduction, murder to be made public Thursday

The investigative files on an infamous 1989 child abduction and murder in Minnesota are set to be made public Thursday, two years after the case was finally solved. Jacob Wetterling, 11, of St. Joseph, vanished the evening of Oct. 22, 1989, as he rode home on his bike with his younger brother, Trevor, and his best friend. The three boys had gone...
What to know about the deadly Eastern equine encephalitis virus found in Atlanta
What to know about the deadly Eastern equine encephalitis virus found in Atlanta

The DeKalb County health department in metro Atlanta recently announced that a mosquito in the area tested positive for the deadly Eastern equine encephalitis virus. >> Read more trending news  “It’s a very serious illness if it is to infect a person,” Ryan Cira, the environmental health director for the DeKalb Board of...
More Stories