North Carolina’s Waste Containment Technology Problem is Brought to the Surface by Recent Storms

North Carolinians are becoming used to seeing post-apocalyptic pictures of muddy brown water rising up beyond the banks of our rivers, and overtaking agricultural and industrial sites. Hurricane Florence is the second storm in three years to cause massive inland flooding, leading to the breaching of dozens of hog lagoons in the state. Now there is a new concern emerging, with reports indicating that there is potentially coal ash spilling once again into our waterways.

Storms such as Hurricane Florence earlier this month and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 were once considered to be “500 year” or “1000 year” storms, but due to climte change the overwhelming consensus is that hurricanes of this intensity will become increasingly common. This means that unless North Carolina wants to continue spending billions of dollars in cleanup related to toxic waste flood pollution, they need to take a hard look at potential alternatives.

This storm should be a wake up call to industry leaders. If there was ever a time to seriously invest time and money into alternative waste management solutions, it is now.

Hog waste and coal ash share a commonality: how they are stored. The widespread agricultural practice is to have hogs live in buildings with slated floors, so the waste runs out into open air lagoons that are often unlined. The waste sits in these lagoons, waiting to be sprayed on nearby fields that are already oversaturated. These open pits are also extremely vulnerable to flooding when large storms such as Hurricane Florence occur. The water from adjacent rivers simply wash over them, carrying the waste with it. The runoff from these farms can lead to toxic levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in waterways, as well as potentially antibiotic resistant bacteria and microbes. More than 15 million tons of manure are produced annually from these farms, making the potential health hazard very real.

Coal ash is also traditionally stored in open basins where the toxic gray dust is mixed with water. These “ponds” are often near water sources such as rivers, as the energy plants rely on a constant water supply as a coolant. The ash itself contains chemicals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury which all pose significant threats to human health. The EPA has found that nearly 95% of coal ash ponds nationally have leaked into rivers or groundwater. North Carolina is unfortunately no stranger to these types of spills. In 2014, a coal ash pond in Eden breached and sent 34,000 tons of toxic sludge into the Dan River. The result was a multimillion dollar settlement in a lawsuit against Duke Energy, and waterways that are still reeling from the effects of the contamination

North Carolina is now facing a new coal ash threat as a result of Hurricane Florence. Reports have indicated that a dam at the Sutton Plant in Wilmington has been breached by rising floodwaters, potentially sending coal ash into the nearby Cape Fear River. Compounding this with the overflowing hog lagoons paints a grim picture for the health of our river systems, and the individuals who live beside them.

This storm should be a wake up call to industry leaders. If there was ever a time to seriously invest time and money into alternative waste management solutions, it is now. The losses that have accrued from years of recurring natural disasters, and from litigation, should be an indication that “business as usual” just does not cut it anymore. There are solutions that are available. Some hog farmers are already embracing more efficienct disposal mechanisms, such as anaerobic digestion where the pits are lined and covered, allowing methane to be trapped and converted into energy. This practice serves a dual purpose of keeping the stench from nearby neighbors, and affording protection against potential flooding.

Coal ash also has significant recycling possibilities, with cleaner energy implications as well. It can be combined with water and pressed to turn it into concrete bricks that can be used as building materials. The use of coal ash in this manner can help reduce the carbon footprint for the cement production process, as it replaces typically carbon intensive materials. Coal ash has also been tested as a lighter additive to metals used for construction.  

More efficient and environmentally sound waste storage mechanisms and technologies are available, and more are being developed. North Carolina is now faced with a dilemma: do we continue with the decades old practice of simply dumping toxic waste into open pits, or do we embrace and invest in emerging technologies that may be vital in the face of future storms?