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Leon Kaye headshot

Hurricane Matthew Threatens Carolina Pork Industry

By Leon Kaye

Hurricane Matthew may have passed, but damage from flooding will leave a tragic and frustrating wake for millions of residents. At least 20 North Carolinians have died, and damage across the southeastern U.S. could cost more than $10 billion. One industry that is suffering, as well as posing a lasting environmental crisis, is the state’s pork industry.

North Carolina is home to two counties that boast the nation’s largest annual pork sales, and the industry’s near $3 billion in annual revenues is only second to Iowa. Most of the industry is concentrated in the eastern part of the state, where thousands of hog farmers are now working 24/7 to protect their properties and livelihoods. But in addition to the lost revenues and lost jobs due to widespread plant closures, Hurricane Matthew also caused thousands of hogs and pigs to drown while animal waste further polluted the state’s rivers and streams. Some of North Carolina’s larger meatpacking companies, such as Smithfield, temporarily shut down their operations as Matthew approached. Smaller pork producers, meanwhile, were left scrambling.

According to one environmental group, the Waterkeeper Alliance, Hurricane Matthew will leave a lasting impact and flooding will fester across North Carolina for some time. In addition to the threats from flooded coal ash ponds and poultry farms, overwhelmed wastewater lagoons that were built to safeguard pig excrement could send these contaminants into groundwater supplies and rivers in the event local rivers crest.

The result could be one of North Carolina’s worst economic and environmental crises since 1999, when floods from Hurricane Floyd overwhelmed lagoons that hold animal waste. Waste from farm animals such as hogs and pigs are stored in these lagoons, which are not much more than unlined pits dug into the ground, for long periods of time, environmental reporter Natasha Geiling wrote on ThinkProgress.

Add the fact that the low-lying eastern Carolinas are always subject to flood risks, plus years of lax regulation intended to boost the state’s booming livestock industry, and a 500-year event such as Hurricane Matthew can wreak havoc in a short amount of time. And nutrients that spill over from these animal waste lagoons could lead to algae blooms within the state’s rivers, lakes and even coastline well into the future.

Most unsettling are the various media accounts describing the thousands of pigs and chickens that drowned in barns and livestock operations across North Carolina. While it will take days to see if this hurricane will cause as much misery as Hurricane Floyd did in 1999, the lessons from North Carolina are still clear: Improved waste management will not only reduce environmental damage in the event of a natural disaster, but it can also save money and jobs in the long run.

Image credit: Waterkeeper Alliance/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye