By Chris Fry
When Hurricane Matthew crashed into North Carolina in 2016, it was declared a “once in 500 year” event, with nearly two feet of rainfall on the eastern coastal plain of the state. The town of Lumberton sits in this area, with a population of more than 21,000 people; 37 percent of them are African-American and 12 percent are Native. Located near the Lumber River, it is one of the poorest towns in the state, with declining incomes and approximately one-third of its residents already below the poverty line. A levee, topped by Interstate 95, lies between Lumberton and the river, but a railroad underpass cuts through it and during Hurricane Matthew, the river’s flood water poured through.
Hundreds of homes in the poorest sections of the town were destroyed, with at least one person killed. Fifteen hundred people were forced to flee their homes. In the storm’s aftermath, Lumberton’s county government created a “Resilient Redevelopment Plan,” which “called for upgrades to the Lumber River levee and the construction of a floodgate where the levee opens for a railroad crossing. That would prevent what happened during the 2016 storm, when the river poured through the opening into largely low-income neighborhoods of south and west Lumberton.
“But the construction of the floodgate requires coordinating with CSX, the freight company that owns the railroad track — or Gov. Roy Cooper (D) to force the issue by declaring eminent domain. Neither scenario has happened yet.” (Washington Post, Sept. 18)
So when Hurricane Florence, declared a “once in a thousand year event,” was forecast to hit the same area in September, Lumberton town officials begged CSX to allow them to fill in the rail underpass with a temporary dirt levee to keep the river’s flood water out. CSX refused, and the giant rail company threatened to sue town officials if they set foot on railroad property.
Only when the governor intervened and forced CSX’s hand did the company allow the National Guard and volunteers to place dirt piles and sand bags across the underpass even as the storm pounded down on them. Two days later, their dam failed and floodwater crashed through, creating a worse flood in the town than two years before. This cruel attack on the people of Lumberton has sparked a class-action lawsuit.
Hog shit exacerbates nightmare
CSX is not the only giant corporation that has magnified Florence’s nightmare for the people of North Carolina. A Sept. 30 article by Charles Bethea in the New Yorker details how “more than seven million gallons of hog waste escaped two lagoons in Duplin and Sampson Counties, in North Carolina, and entered the tributaries to the South River and the Northeast Cape Fear River.”
“I know what hog shit smells like and my house smells like hog shit,” Kemp Burdette, a “citizen watchdog” and advocate who lives on the flooding Black River, 20 miles northwest of Wilmington, told Bethea. “The water beside it is full of hog shit.” As soon as he’s done surveying Florence’s broader environmental damage, he said, “I’ll be home with bottles of bleach trying to clean up, so my kids don’t get sick when we move back in.”
Most of the pig farms in these North Carolina counties are owned by or contracted with Smithfield Foods, the largest pig and pork producer in the world, with $15 billion in annual sales. For decades, pig waste has been dumped into earthen pits called “waste lagoons.” Neighbors of these putrid-smelling pits, which sometimes emit “fecal mists,” are typically oppressed communities. People in the area mostly rely on well water for drinking and washing.
After Hurricane Floyd dumped millions of gallons of pig waste into rivers and groundwater in 1999, Smithfield was forced to research a way to eliminate these waste lagoons. The resulting report recommended, according to the article, “replacing the old earthen pit lagoons with open tanks, which protect groundwater and also nearby land and surface waterways.”
Rick Dove is a senior adviser to the Waterkeeper Alliance and a resident of New Bern, North Carolina, which lies just west from a number of failed lagoons. He told the reporter, “Smithfield has the money to fill in all of these pits and put this waste into waste-treatment system.” With Terra Blue, he explained, “the solids are sold as fertilizer. The liquids are reprocessed. But Smithfield and its farms won’t adopt the technology, and we end up with these rivers of hog waste.”
So far, Smithfield refuses to install this system, since the cost of cleanup is borne by state and local governments, as well as volunteers and the general public, and not by the company.
Coal waste from the state’s power plants, which Hurricane Florence also forced into the rivers, is an added threat to the people. The coal ash contains heavy metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic. Overflowing hog waste lagoons contain dangerous bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella.
“A North Carolina man died after contracting a bacterial infection while doing yard work related to Hurricane Florence, according to CNN affiliate WECT. Ron Phelps of Wilmington scraped his leg and it became infected, prompting doctors to amputate it, the station reported. But that wasn’t enough to save him.” (CNN, Oct. 1)
Hurricanes are indeed natural disasters. But there is nothing natural about big business’ insatiable hunger for profits aggravating the suffering of the workers and oppressed facing these terrible storms.