Florence could flood hog manure pits, coal ash dumps

Nick Hobbs, left, and Randy Shaw, right, of Marine Warehouse Center, remove a customer's boat from the water in advance of Hurricane Florence in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. (AP)
Updated 12 September 2018

Florence could flood hog manure pits, coal ash dumps

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

WASHINGTON: Hurricane Florence’s heavy rains could cause an environmental disaster in North Carolina, where waste from hog manure pits, coal ash dumps and other industrial sites could 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 US 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.”


Britain’s Johnson plays down Brexit breakthrough hopes

Updated 13 October 2019

Britain’s Johnson plays down Brexit breakthrough hopes

  • EU leaders will meet on Thursday and Friday for a summit held under the pressures of the October 31 Brexit deadline

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson played down hopes Sunday of a breakthrough in his last-ditch bid to strike an amicable divorce deal with the European Union.
Negotiators went behind closed doors for intensive talks in Brussels after Johnson outlined a new set of proposals to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday.
They have very little time left to succeed.
EU leaders will meet on Thursday and Friday for a summit held under the pressures of the October 31 Brexit deadline just two weeks away.
The 27 would ideally like to have a full proposal to vote on by then.
But the sides are trying to achieve in a few days what they had failed to in the more than three years since Britons first voted to leave the European Union after nearly 50 years.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier called the weekend negotiations “constructive” enough to keep going for another day.
“A lot of work remains to be done,” Barnier stressed in a statement to EU ambassadors.
“Discussions at technical level will continue (Monday).”
Downing Street said Johnson also told his cabinet to brace for a cliff-hanger finish.
He reiterated “that a pathway to a deal could be seen but that there is still a significant amount of work to get there and we must remain prepared to leave on October 31,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
Johnson rose to power in July on a promise not to extend Brexit for a third time this year — even for a few weeks.
Breaking that pledge could come back to haunt him in an early general election that most predict for the coming months.
Johnson is under parliamentary orders to seek a extension until January 31 of next year if no deal emerges by Saturday.
He has promised to both follow the law and get Britain out by October 31 — a contradiction that might end up being settled in court.
Outgoing EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker said British politics were getting more difficult to decipher than the riddle of an “Egyptian sphinx.”
“If the British ask for more time, which they probably will not, it would in my view be a historical nonsense to refuse them,” Juncker told Austria’s Kurier newspaper.
Ireland’s Varadkar hinted on Thursday that he could support the talks running on up to the October 31 deadline if a deal seemed within reach.
The few details that have leaked out suggest a compromise around the contentious Irish border issue Britain’s Northern Ireland partially aligned with EU customs rules.
Whether such a fudge suits both Brussels and the more ardent Brexit backers in parliament who must still approve a deal should become clearer by the end of the week.
Britain will only avoid a chaotic breakup with its closest trading partners if the agreement is also passed by the UK parliament — something it has failed to do three times.
Johnson heads a minority government and must rely on the full backing of not only his own fractured Conservatives but also Northern Ireland’s small Democratic Unionist Party.
DUP’s parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds warned Johnson that “Northern Ireland must remain entirely in the customs union of the United Kingdom” and not the EU.
“And Boris Johnson knows it very well,” Dodds told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper.
The comments do not necessarily rule out DUP support.
UK media are presenting Johnson’s mooted compromise as a “double customs” plan that could be interpreted to mean that Northern Ireland is leaving EU rules.
Yet details are still under discussion and the prime minister’s allies are urging lawmakers to give the British leader a chance.
Main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn signalled Sunday that he would wait for the outcome of the EU summit before trying to force an early election.
But he added that there was “a strong possibility” that those polls would come before the Christmas break.