Floodwaters have caused the worst damage to North Carolina’s hog farms in nearly two decades, with more than 5,000 animals dying and several dozen waste lagoons releasing pollutants into waterways.
Hog industry officials said Wednesday they didn’t expect much more damage to farms, despite some rivers continuing to rise in the state. But environmental groups are calling for the industry to relocate lagoons in floodplains to lessen the risks during major storms going forward.
Flooding was expected in North Carolina through Saturday, and many roads remain under water, the National Weather Service said.
“This is the most significant storm that we have faced probably ever,” said Andy Curliss, chief executive of the North Carolina Pork Council.
Mr. Curliss said farmers moved 20,000 hogs to higher ground, which prevented a higher death toll. “From our point of view, there’s a lot of heroics,” he said, adding that media reports of damage to several of the state’s 3,300 active hog-waste lagoons was exaggerated.
Hurricane Florence killed 5,500 of the state’s 8.9 million pigs and hogs, the state said. That is more than the 2,800 hogs that died during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, but far less than the 21,000 hogs that died during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, according to pork council numbers.
An estimated 3.4 million chickens and turkeys were killed by Florence, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reported Wednesday.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said it had received reports of breaches, or structural failures, at at least two hog-waste lagoons. One breach in Duplin County was considered a total loss and more than 2.2 million gallons had spilled out, said Megan Thorpe, a department spokeswoman.
The agency said heavy rains had caused manure to spill over at 21 additional lagoons. It didn’t have an estimate for the total amount spilled at farms.
Spilled waste from lagoons risks contaminating groundwater, including potentially from pathogens like salmonella, insecticides and pharmaceuticals.
“Clearly it’s a lot of waste getting into the water,” said Bob Edwards, a professor of sociology at East Carolina University, who has studied the waste lagoons.
Mr. Edwards said the storm will renew calls to relocate about 60 existing hog farms and associated waste lagoons from floodplains. Since Hurricane Floyd, a state program has bought farms and relocated more than 100 lagoons from floodplains, according to the state environmental agency.
Mr. Curliss said the industry is supportive of the program, but he defended the lagoon system, saying it had the approval of federal and state environmental officials.
“We have spent a lot of money, time and effort into looking into alternatives, and right now there isn’t one,” he said. “Lagoon technology is very widely accepted.”