This story is part of a series, including maps and blog posts, about the predicament and environmental threat of industrialized swine farms that lie within the 100-year flood plain. Read a primer on the Swine Farm Buyout Program,  as well as view four county maps from yesterday  illustrating some of the farms’ locations.
Just three weeks ago, Hurricane Florence barreled ashore between Wilmington and New Bern with the ferocity of a tyrant. After unleashing 140 mile per hour winds and torrential rain along the coast, she began to mosey inland.
Then, pregnant with rain, she rested. Florence emptied her contents, and the varicose rivers ruptured their banks, leaking contaminants from hog waste lagoons, poultry operations, wastewater treatment plants, coal ash basins and hazardous waste sites into eastern North Carolina waterways.
This week at the governor’s behest, the legislature convened a special session to appropriate disaster relief funds to help communities recover after Hurricane Florence. The initial bills will be amended in the coming weeks, but early versions of the legislation contained no money for the NC Department of Environmental Quality to address its reported 1,800 storm-related incidents. Nor did it include funding for a crucial program administered by the agriculture department that could reduce the amount of hog waste entering the state’s waterways — not just during major flooding but even strong storms.
The Swine Farm Buyout Program, which is voluntary, launched in 1999 after three hurricanes devastated eastern North Carolina. Under the program, state funds are used to decommission and close swine farms in the 100-year flood plain. Parts of the farm are placed in conservation easements, which restrict what can be built on that acreage. For example, farmers may grow row crops or raise cattle on pasture but not rebuild large swine farms. The goal of the program is to help prevent the farms’ open waste lagoons from flooding and contaminating waterways.
In 1999, lawmakers approved an initial appropriation of $18.7 million for the program, administered through the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Yet that money was exhausted by 2007, and more than 100 farms that wanted to participate couldn’t.
Then for a decade, even as tropical storms and minor hurricanes pelted eastern North Carolina, the legislature ignored the buyout program, despite its success. During Hurricane Matthew, 32 of the 43 farms purchased — accounting for 103 lagoons — would have otherwise flooded. Nonetheless, the program has been chronically underfunded since its inception.
“The legislature hasn’t done anything in this century,” said Will Hendrick, staff attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance, which advocates for eliminating the open waste lagoon and spray system in favor of more environmentally sound methods. “The only time the General Assembly has even considered reinvesting in it, the amount was inadequate to close a double-digit gap.”
Meanwhile, according to the North Carolina Pork Council, grants from the NC Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation have permanently closed 231 out-of-service lagoons since 2002 — with more than 100 of those lagoons closing in 2007 or later. Also, some hog farms in the floodplain have closed on their own.
But without a dedicated, predictable funding source, many farms are still at-risk. During Florence, six lagoons sustained structural damage, another 32 “overtopped,” and seven were inundated, although no discharges in those latter cases were reported, according to DEQ. An unknown amount of hog feces and urine — along with dead animals and poultry waste, combined with municipal sewage — soaked acres of land and entered streams.
After Hurricane Matthew hit in October 2016, lawmakers sprinkled a few crumbs into the 2017 budget bill for Forest Service disaster relief, with the condition some of it could be used for the buyout program. But those crumbs didn’t even have a dollar sign. The budget language allowed the Department of Agriculture to use any Forest Service money that wasn’t either spoken for or spent, and redirect it to the buyout program.
The amount could have been nothing. But as it turns out, the department was able to peel off $2.5 million from the Forest Service, which was matched by another $2.5 million in federal grants.
Within the next week, the Agriculture officials are expected to open a fifth round of applications for the Swine Farm Buyout Program. The $5 million could buy out just five to eight farms, said David Williams, deputy director of the state Division of Soil and Water Conservation. That leaves scores of farms remaining in flood-prone areas, unprepared for the next hurricane.
Although any farm in a 100-year flood plain is eligible to apply, each must meet certain criteria to be considered for a buyout. Those criteria, such as the elevation of the lagoons and the barns above the flood plain, are used to rank the farms and begin the bidding process.
Williams said 45 to 62 active swine farms are located within the 100-year floodplain, although more analysis of their elevation needs to be conducted.
The agriculture department expects to announce next spring the list of farms awarded a buyout. To close these at-risk farms and convert them to conservation easements — not counting ones that are immediately adjacent to the flood plains — the department would need roughly $30 million, Williams said.
Hurricane Florence was the second so-called “500-year storm” since 2016, when Hurricane Matthew hit, but that designation is misleading. A 500-year storm that means there is a 0.2 percent chance of that severity of flooding to occur in any given year. One-hundred year storms are those that have a 1 percent annual chance. These storms are beginning to feel commonplace.
“These are statistical records,” said Michelle Nowlin, supervising attorney for the Duke University Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. “And they give people a false sense of security.”
It’s also questionable whether areas outside the 100-year flood plain are protective enough. The state and federal governments haven’t updated all of their floodplain maps for nearly 20 years. Williams said several farms that appear to be outside the 100-year floodplain nonetheless have flooded several times, because of the amplified severity of the storms and the increased development upstream.
If FEMA changes the boundaries again in light of climate change, even more farms could become eligible — without the funding to buy them out. Once a farm is converted to a conservation easement, it can’t rebuild as an industrialized hog farm. The trade magazine National Hog Farmer observed that this restriction, could diminish the state’s pork industry, especially in conjunction with the moratorium on new or expanded swine operations that can be built with open waste lagoons.
The Pork Council agrees, saying that since no new hog farms have been built in North Carolina for more than 20 years, pork production is impacted every time a hog farm closes. “Currently, there is no way to make up for that lost production.”
However, Hendrick of the Waterkeeper Alliance disagrees, noting that the hog industry can regain those production losses “by investing in superior waste management technology,” which would allow farms to build and expand elsewhere.
Swine operations in North Carolina are legally required to be designed to withstand a 25-year, 24-hour rain event — the maximum amount of rainfall in one day that would be expected in a quarter-century. Established in the 1960s, that requirement is antiquated, Nowlin said. In fact, there is no requirement that these farms be retrofitted to endure more severe storms — a topic that is likely to come up as farms apply for their permit renewals over the next year.
Environmental advocates have been long complained to state regulators that the numbers fail to capture the full extent of the disasters that unfold on the ground. “If we continue this legal fiction that the farms don’t discharge, then we need bulletproof technology,” Nowlin said. “The waste should be stored above ground, not in the sandy soils of the coastal plain where there is a risk of groundwater contamination.”
Nowlin said the state should also require groundwater and water quality monitoring to assure people in the area, particularly those on private drinking wells, that the water is safe.