The environmental consequences of Hurricane Florence in North Carolina

Oct. 2018 Hurrican damage 2 (AP)

Hurricane damage in New Bern, North Carolina (AP)

By JOHN LESLIE

Hurricane Florence hit the Carolina coast on Sept. 14 with major flooding, leaving hundreds stranded, more than 500,000 without power, and at least 45 dead. Many residents of the region had not anticipated the extent of the flooding from the slow-moving storm, and hundreds required emergency evacuation.

Florence had risen to the level of a Category 4 as it approached landfall, but was quickly downgraded to a Category 1 as it hit the coast, inundating parts of North and South Carolina with as much as 40 inches of rain. It was the worst rainstorm to hit the East Coast of the United States in recorded history.

The intensity and strength of Florence is, in part, due to climate change. As the Atlantic Ocean warms, hurricanes have increased in frequency and intensity. The journal Science concluded, from a study of 2017 tropical storms and hurricanes, including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, that “the increase in 2017 major hurricanes was not primarily caused by La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, but mainly by pronounced warm sea surface conditions in the tropical North Atlantic.” The study noted that they anticipate an increase in the number of hurricanes as surface temperatures rise.Oct. 2018 Hurricane boat

Additionally, as sea levels rise, coastal communities will be adversely affected. In 2012, the North Carolina state legislature banned the use of a study on sea level change, which predicted a rise in sea level on the North Carolina coastline of 39 inches by 2100, until after 2016. A subsequent study predicted a six-inch in sea level over a 30-year period. Many waterfront communities already experience street flooding at high tide, something that was unheard of in earlier years. Many of North Carolina’s fragile barrier islands have been over-developed by powerful real estate interests, hastening erosion, and damaging the ability of these islands to protect the mainland from ocean surges.

Toxic sludge

The destruction from Florence making landfall extends beyond wind and flood damage to communities. Flooding has endangered waterways and fisheries, as pollutants make their way into rivers and streams. A coal ash containment dam at Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton plant, outside of Wilmington, N.C., breached during flooding, releasing a slick of coal waste into the Cape Fear River. The coal ash landfill at the Sutton plant holds more than 400,000 cubic yards of the contaminant, which contains mercury, arsenic, and lead as well as other toxic substances.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),  “without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water, and the air.” The sludge can settle to the bottom of a lake or river and remain there for years. In the aftermath of the storm, Duke Energy security personnel blocked public access to the area around Sutton Lake, citing safety concerns.

Days earlier, another Duke Energy coal ash landfill had released an estimated 2000 cubic yards of coal ash sludge into the Cape Fear River. Additionally, environmentalists reported that a coal ash landfill at Goldsboro, N.C., was under water during flooding and releasing waste into the Neuse River. This is a threat to both commercial and recreational fishing in the region.

Animal waste

In addition to the coal ash spills, waste from factory farming operations threatens waterways. An estimated 5500 pigs and 3.4 million chickens were killed in post-Florence flooding. North Carolina, the second-largest pork producer in the U.S., has more than 4000 open-air hog waste “lagoons.” These are ponds filled with a mix of water and hog manure and urine—plus the remains of animal carcasses, blood, and chemicals from pesticides. These waste pits receive more than 9.5 million tons of waste annually from more than 9 million hogs.

Oct. 2018 Hog waste lagoon

A hog-waste lagoon. (photo: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)

At least 13 of these hog lagoons have leaked into surrounding areas during flooding. At least two of these waste pits have sustained structural damage. This exposes communities to E.coli, salmonella, and antibiotic-resistant MRSA.

Despite claims to the contrary, waste-polluted water may also leach into groundwater, affecting people dependent on wells for drinking water. Additionally, release of nitrogen-rich manure into waterways encourages algae growth, robbing the water of oxygen and contributing to the death of fish and other wildlife.

Following Hurricane Matthew, in 2016, there were increased levels of bacteria in waterways for months afterwards. Similar effects were seen with Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when 2 million chickens and 110,000 hogs were killed, but virtually nothing was done to alleviate the problem.

Corporate factory-farm polluters, like Smithfield, operate without supervision by the EPA or compliance with the Clean Water Act, thanks to a 2011 U.S. District Court decision in favor of a number of associations that represent big agri-business. Currently, there are no treatment requirements at the federal level for disposing of animal waste.

Pollution from factory hog-farming operations appear to have an effect on human health, with life expectancy lower in southeastern North Carolina than other regions of the state. A study in the North Carolina Journal of Medicine notes increased infant mortality, anemia, kidney disease, and low birth weight associated with areas near hog farms. This is true for both higher and lower income groups, but availability of health care for poor people is limited.

The study points out that the number of farms in southeastern North Carolina is higher than other states (Minnesota and Iowa) with large numbers of hog farms, while the population of the region is much denser than in those Midwestern states.

Reconstruction Needed

Only a democratic reconstruction of the economy, under the control of working people, can address the threat posed by extreme weather, irresponsible waste disposal, and factory farming. We have to radically restructure how we generate energy and raise our food to put an end to these environmental disasters.

A public works program on the level of the post-World War II “Marshall Plan” is necessary to remediate the coal ash and hog waste problems. A national health-care system is necessary to address the problems in communities experiencing exposure to these toxic industries.

As sea levels rise and weather gets more extreme, coastal areas are endangered. Major investment in infrastructure is necessary to safeguard and retrofit coastal communities. Programs to assist in the relocation of endangered populations are necessary.

An emergency plan must be put into effect to limit the catastrophic effects of climate change. The United States should lead the world in an effort to create a economy that values conservation and is based on 100 percent renewable fuels. This will require nationalizing the energy industry under workers control, and retraining workers involved with fossil fuels for new jobs at top union wages.

The capitalist class has proven itself incapable and unwilling to address the dangers that come from climate change. Their willingness to sacrifice both nature and humanity on the altar of profits shows clearly that the social system run by their parasitic class needs to be replaced by a revolutionary system run by and for working people.