The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Yet Another Perfect Storm?

Posted by | October 22, 2016 | Filed under: Opinion

He who smelt it, dealt it

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 10/23/2016, and Making It At Home's 10/26/2016 issue.

It’s too early to tally the full damage from Hurricane Matthew, which earlier this month plowed up the Southeast U.S. coast from Florida to North Carolina. Working at the local Wells Reserve, a place that pays a lot of attention to coastal watershed issues, I watched closely as four research reserves in our national system of 28 took the brunt of the storm. Plus, I have a demonstrated interest in manure, so the following story caught my eye.

On October 16, The Washington Post reported from North Carolina that

“Hundreds of hog and poultry farms may have been inundated last week as the Neuse, Lumber, and Tar rivers roared over their banks, a rampage powered by the deluge of Hurricane Matthew. The carcasses of several thousand drowned hogs and several million drowned chickens and turkeys were left behind. An incalculable amount of animal waste was carried toward the ocean. Along the way, it could be contaminating the groundwater for the many people who rely on wells in this part of the state, as well as threatening the delicate ecosystems of tidal estuaries and bays.”

Some wetlands and creeks and coastal marshes of coastal North Carolina may now be knee-deep in toxic pig poop? The shit has literally hit the fen.

It’s not as though North Carolina didn’t have any warning that this could happen. In June 1995, more than a foot of rain over the course of two weeks ruptured a hog lagoon and sent a plume of manure into the headwaters of the New River in North Carolina. The spill, greater in volume and stench than the Exxon Valdez, wiped out the river’s fish population and settled across lawns and roadways for months. Similar disasters occurred after 1996’s Hurricane Fran and in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd.

So far this time, it seems like North Carolina has escaped disaster: of the 4,100 hog lagoons in the state, less than a dozen were inundated, and none breached. Was it through planning, or regulation, or luck? Likely a combination of all three.

I realize America has a big appetite for pork, and all those pigs have to be raised somewhere. It just seems a little dicey to me to keep standing lakes of putrid, antibiotic-laced hog manure in areas prone to massive deluge. Every time there’s a Significant Rain Event, as the meteorologists like to call them, there’s a chance for a flash flood of pig poop through the Carolina coastal plain.

Similar danger exists for so many looming infrastructure problems, from outdated dams and coal ash ponds to low-lying sewage treatment plants. Many are just waiting for a “perfect storm” of coincidences to unleash their catastrophic potential.

But do they require a perfect storm of weather, or of inaction? Events leading to everything from Enron’s collapse, the Great Recession, police shootings, and even Donald Trump’s rise have all been called “the perfect storm.” It’s a phrase now used to excuse all manner of foreseeable accidents, even if the original perfect storm, the no-named October 30 storm that hit the North Atlantic 25 years ago, was a rare confluence of natural weather. It doesn’t take a perfect storm to wreak havoc, especially if we know the man-made risks already. There are always measures we can take now to lessen the dangers in the future. Attention, clear eyes, and strong wills are necessary. Experts from the Wells Reserve’s Coastal Training Program are already assisting local planners and businesses to prepare for the floods of tomorrow.

Last week a storm blew in down south. More than a foot of rain fell. Vile impoundments of pig feces overflowed and dead hogs floated into the conversation. Hurricane Matthew’s campaign through North Carolina could just as easily be a metaphor for the 2016 presidential campaign. But, really, who wants to wallow in that mire any longer than necessary?

 

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His monthly column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and present, drought and flood. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

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