2018/09/21: Dominated by multinational corporations that contract with local farmers, the industry is concentrated in the state's low-lying southeastern coastal plain – exactly where Florence shattered rainfall records.
Even in fair weather, the state's 2,100 facilities, all decades old, pose problems. Odor and pathogens from animal barns, waste pits, and spray fields can torment and sicken neighbors, prompting three juries this year to award hundreds of millions in damages to plaintiffs suing Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer. Other suits are in the offing.
A Duke University study published online this week reinforced these neighbors' concerns, citing low life expectancy in communities near confined animal feeding operations, even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors known to affect health and lifespan.
All of these threats are amplified after heavy rains. Fields saturated with rainwater can't absorb nutrients from waste pits; excess nitrogen and phosphorous instead appear in rivers and streams, at worst causing algae blooms and fish kills. Manure pits can burst or overflow, sending sludge, microbes, and potentially antibiotic-resistant bacteria into floodwaters, heightening their risk to public health.
"You're releasing all of that and making this soup of eastern North Carolina," Ryke Longest, director of Duke University's environmental law clinic, told EHN.