The putter of a tiny outboard motor echoes out over an eerie stillness. The silence replaces the clucking of hundreds of thousands of chickens and turkeys who, just days before, occupied the barns that are now submerged under rust-brown, feces-strewn water in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which devastated the state of North Carolina. The air burns the eyes of photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur, who steers the boat.
“We’ve seen thousands of bodies floating in fields and caught in fences,” recalls McArthur, founder of We Animals, which chronicles the plight of animals on all seven continents. “I tried, but could not fathom, the terrifying deaths these individuals endured as the waters rose inside the sheds where they were trapped.”
Florence’s downfall came just a month after Farm Sanctuary’s Hoedown, where McArthur connected with North Carolina Waterkeeper Alliance Senior Advisor Rick Dove, who pioneered the use of aircraft to document sources of pollution.
“When the news of Hurricane Florence hit the airways, Jo-Anne contacted me about coming to cover the impacts of this storm,” Dove recalls. “I took her on a flight over the devastated landscape of eastern North Carolina, where swine and poultry waste was flowing down our rivers along with dead animals.”
Dove has witnessed this type of devastation many times before. In 1999, at least one million chickens and turkeys and 21,000 pigs perished in the floodwaters of Hurricane Floyd, and local water supplies were polluted by the overflowing of massive waste “lagoons” filled with animal excrement.
After Floyd, North Carolina State environmental officials made some effort toward preventing another disaster of this magnitude, buying out 43 pig operations located in the floodplain, removing more than 100 waste lagoons, and relocating other lagoons to higher ground. But the remaining lagoons proved to be just as susceptible to failure in a large storm.
In October of 2016, Hurricane Matthew brought devastating flooding to eastern North Carolina, killing nearly two million chickens and 2,800 pigs and flooding 14 lagoons. According to Duke University researchers, this flooding causes severe health problems — higher rates of infant mortality, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia, to name a few — for local communities.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Florence may be the most horrific yet. At press time, the number of factory-farmed animals drowned had already topped that of Hurricane Matthew; 33 manure lagoons overflowed, with more on the brink of overflowing into local rivers and groundwater.
Why has the cycle of storm flooding and waste overflow been stuck on a loop? Like the slurry, the waste lagoons contain, it’s the result of a toxic mixture: a state legislature tied to factory farming, and an industry that values profits over human and animal lives. Legislators have pushed through environmental-rule exemptions, caps on nuisance lawsuits, and other passed pro-industry laws.
Farm Sanctuary and other organizations must continue pressing lawmakers in the state to change policies, and engage and activate the communities so that their concerns and anger are heard. Without an organized effort, it is only a matter of time before we witness another heartbreaking disaster.
A Step in the Right Direction
In October, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service announced that they will continue the N.C. Swine Floodplain Buyout Program for pig-farming operations within North Carolina’s 100-year floodplain. Created in 1999, the program has invested more than $18 million to successfully buy out 43 operations. Participation in the buyout requires forfeiting the facility’s permit and/or waste-management-plan certification, meaning the owner cannot relocate the facility and continue raising pigs as an existing operation. This effectively opens the door to other forms of agriculture — like planting crops.
A brief history of the North Carolina Legislature’s support of the factory farming industry:
- 2012 – Regulatory Reform Act of 2012 (S.B. 810)
Removes state agencies’ authority to regulate air emissions from factory farms that pollute state waters. PASSED
- 2013 – Amend Environmental Laws 2013 (H.B. 94)
Protects companies discharging toxic substances and does not mandate that they pay for clean-up. PASSED
- 2016 – Property Protection Act (H.B. 405)
This “ag-gag” law penalizes whistleblowers, including those on factory farms. PASSED
Farm Sanctuary is part of a coalition challenging the constitutionality of this law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit recently ruled in our favor to allow our suit to proceed.
- 2017 – Amend Administrative Procedure Laws (H.B. 162)
Limits the authority of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to regulate waste management within its own state and protects large corporations like factory farms from regulations which cost them big money. PASSED
- 2017 – Agriculture and Forestry Nuisance Remedies (H.B. 467)
This “hog-farm protection bill” limits the amount of compensatory damages that a property owner living near a factory farm can be awarded in a private nuisance lawsuit. PASSED
- 2018 – NC Farm Act of 2018 (S.B. 711)
Allows North Carolina’s pig industry to pollute with impunity. Punitive damages can now only be awarded if there have been previous criminal convictions of, or environmental regulatory actions against, the defendant within the last three years; also shields the dairy industry from competition from plant-based milk producers. PASSED
One North Carolina politician received the following funding from the agriculture industry over the course of his career, according to campaign-finance records compiled by IndyWeek, publishers of the three-part investigative “Hogwashed” series:
- $115,000 from Big Pork, including the North Carolina Pork Council and Smithfield Foods
- $20,000+ from the owner of the tenth-largest pork producer in the United States
- $36,250 from donors associated with Murphy-Brown, the world’s largest pig producer; Murphy-Brown faces more than two dozen federal-nuisance lawsuits in the state of North Carolina
The Death Toll
More than 6 million farm animals have drowned in the last three major storms in North Carolina.
- Hurricane Floyd, 1999
1 million chickens and turkeys | 21,000 pigs
- Hurricane Matthew, 2016
1.8 million chickens | 2,800 pigs
- Hurricane Florence, 2018*
3.4 million chickens and turkeys | 5,500 pigs
*Death-toll counts were not finalized at press time
2018 Animal Advocacy Highlights
Ag-Gag Legislation — Overturned!
Farm Sanctuary had a major victory as part of a coalition that successfully sued to strike provisions of this law, which, in violation of the First Amendment, banned the recording of conditions at factory farms and slaughterhouses.
Yellville Turkey Drop — Canceled!
Every year since 1946, residents of Yellville, AR, have celebrated Thanksgiving with a festival during which live turkeys are dropped from planes or thrown from multiple-story buildings. Its new sponsor, the Mid-Marion County Rotary Club, has barred the cruel practice.
USDA — Sued!
Farm Sanctuary and The Animal Welfare Institute have sued the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for failing to respond to a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to proactively post online department records related to the treatment of animals in U.S. slaughter plants. (We’ll keep you posted on our progress with the lawsuit!)
Prop 12 — Passed!
Farm Sanctuary was part of a coalition supporting a “yes” vote on Prop 12, which was approved by California voters in November and will help prevent some of the worst forms of cruel confinement of animals on farms in the state. Although this measure won’t end factory farming, it will criminalize some of the most egregious industry practices and will ban the sale of certain animal-derived consumer products in California.
Battery Cages — Outlawed!
Rhode Island legislators voted to ban inhumane battery cages, which are used to tightly pack hens used for egg production. The measure will mandate that egg-laying chickens be housed in cage-free facilities instead. Rhode Island joins six other states that have passed laws banning battery cages, including California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Washington, and Oregon.
Dogs and Cats — Saved!
As part of the Farm Bill, Congress approved a ban on the slaughter, transportation, sale, and possession of dogs and cats for consumption. While it may surprise you that this was still legal in the U.S., it actually needed to be outlawed in 44 states.
Animal Testing for Cosmetics — Banned!
The California Cruelty-Free Cosmetics Act prohibits manufacturers to “import for profit, sale, or offer for sale” any cosmetic product that was developed or made using an animal test, if the test occurs after the law takes effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
Top photo: We Animals