The Virginia Pilot: Editorial: Ignoring waste lagoons' is a lasting risk
Cutting taxes has consequences. One of those is a lack of staff and funding to keep water clean and prepare for hurricanes.
The threat of hurricanes is a constant in eastern North Carolina, as much a part of the landscape as the golden fields of tobacco that once dominated the region in the late summer months.
So it is a wonder that the state hasn’t done more to regulate these pits long before Florence hit and potentially compromised the soil quality and drinking water for thousands of residents in some of North Carolina’s poorest counties.
State officials cannot claim they were unaware of the risk.
The same thing happened in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd dumped more than 20 inches of rain in some eastern North Carolina communities, causing the failure of about 50 lagoons amid devastating and widespread flooding.
Floyd pushed to the forefront the question of what to do about the lagoons. The General Assembly had, two years prior, enacted a moratorium on the construction of new waste containment facilities or the expansion of existing lagoons. It made those temporary restrictions permanent by a rare unanimous vote in the legislature 10 years later.
That law also included funding to help farmers transition to cleaner technology for hog waste, but few have taken advantage of it. Many continue to collect the waste in lagoons and apply it to fields using massive irrigation sprayers.
Trouble is, farmers cannot precisely control where waste sprayed from massive sprinkler systems ultimately lands, meaning it is cast to the wind when sprayed. Studies suggest it has affected the health of nearby residents, many of whom are people of color.
In April, 10 residents near a Duplin County farm successfully sued the operation for $50 million — a sum reduced to $3.2 million to comply with a 1995 state law limiting the damages hog producers could face from civil action.
In response, the General Assembly swiftly passed a law limiting access to the courts for future lawsuits, overriding the veto of Gov. Roy Cooper in the process. Lawmakers barely wasted a moment in their rush to protect massive hog operations run by billion-dollar international corporations.
But even after Hurricane Floyd and Hurricane Matthew, which two years ago affected 14 lagoons to various degrees, the waste pits remain. And then came Florence, which led not only to the preventable environmental damage of hog waste spills, but to the discharge of coal ash and other chemicals into the rivers and streams across the coastal plan.
The people of eastern North Carolina are suffering today, and it is a misery made demonstrably worse by a state legislature that had 20 years to act — 20 years to eliminate this obvious threat to people’s health — and did precious little instead.