The splintered trees and other debris that choked the flood-swollen Cape Fear River after Hurricane Florence was clear evidence of the storm’s historic destruction, but what you couldn’t see in the muddy water should be the biggest cause for alarm, experts say.
The trillions of gallons of rain dumped during the storm in September flushed contaminants from hundreds of thousands of acres into the river basin, from animal waste on farms to industrial chemicals to human feces. More than 39 million gallons of sewage discharged into the river basin, which extends from the Triad to the ocean and serves as a primary source of drinking water for communities including Fayetteville, Harnett County and Wilmington, according to a Fayetteville Observer analysis of state records of spills in the storm’s aftermath.
Another 2.1 million gallons of sewage spilled into the Lumber River basin, in the southern Sandhills, records show.
The implications of the environmental disaster are not yet understood. Public utilities, including the Fayetteville Public Works Commission, say their plants are able to filter out sewage and other organic contamination before the water flows from your tap. But fish and other wildlife in the river, coastal estuaries and ocean fisheries may likely be contaminated, and endangered species in the Cape Fear could be irreversibly threatened. And the storm may have tainted the river water with even more industrial pollutants, the health risks of which are little understood by regulators.
“Do not swim in the water. Do not,” said UNC-Wilmington marine biology professor Lawrence B. Cahoon. “I'd be very cautious about body contact with a floodwater. In some cases, it may be unavoidable. But you sure as hell should not choose to have body contact with floodwaters. I would probably stay out of the river for a while even if it's not flooding. A lot of those pathogens survive fairly well in sediment.”
The Observer examined state records of sewage spills, which utilities are required to report to regulators, from Sept. 14 through last week. About 39.3 million gallons of raw or partially treated sewage spilled from Greensboro to New Hanover County due to reasons that appeared to be storm-related: overwhelmed systems, power outages, equipment failures and “severe natural conditions.” The amount is roughly the equivalent of 60 Olympic-size swimming pools, or about 78 of Fayetteville’s large water towers. About 6.4 million gallons spilled from the PWC’s sewer plants, lift stations and collection systems, the records show.
Trent Allen, a regional supervisor for the state's Division of Water Resources, said regulators have been taking samples from the Cape Fear since the discharges, but the results are not back yet.
The sampling, which tests for everything from nutrients to fecal coliform to hydrocarbons, started in the last week of September and will run through end of November.
“We've got three sites on the Cape Fear River,” Allen said. “They are doing sampling every two weeks up until the end of November.”
Allen said the millions of gallons of sewage discharged into the river is not good for it, but the massive amount of rainfall would have diluted it as the pollution flowed downstream.
The PWC has three plants adjacent to the river – one to treat drinking water, and two wastewater. They all lost power during Florence, but backup generators kept them operating, said spokeswoman Carolyn Justice-Hinson.
“Our Rockfish Creek plant remained operational but experienced the greatest difficulty because it is the lowest elevation and river and floodwaters were pushing water back into the plant as it was attempting to discharge into the river,” she said.
Justice-Hinson said the plants never shut down during the storm.
“Some reduced the equipment that they were using to prevent damage by floodwaters, but all stayed operational,” she said.
The 10 or more inches of rain that fell over several days affected the sewer collection system, she said -- “mains that carry wastewater from homes and businesses to the treatment plant. Some (spills) were because of loss of power at sanitary sewer lift stations.”
PWC workers either put them on backup generators or pumped them with sewage vacuum trucks, Justice-Hinson said. The two wastewater plants each typically treat 21 million to 25 million gallons of water a day but saw flows three to four times that amount, she said.
Justice-Hinson said that PWC's sewage discharges occurred below the drinking water treatment plant intakes, so the discharges would have flowed downstream.
“Our plants do tests, monitor and adjust treatment needs constantly everyday, regardless of storm flooding, to ensure the drinking water provided to customers meets the EPA’s drinking water standards,” she said.
Justice-Hinson also said with the heavy rainfall, the sewage discharges were “extremely diluted.”
“Rainwater and floodwater also carried other unknown substances during the event from throughout the area, so it’s hard to determine the impact of the wastewater discharges to the other materials and pollution that may have been in the floodwaters,” she said.
Still, the man-made contamination along with organic debris was enough to poison fish, experts say.
“When you get down towards Wilmington you are probably wasting your time going fishing because the fish kill down here has been pretty dramatic,” said Cahoon, the UNC-Wilmington marine biologist. “We're seeing all kinds of dead fish. Up in your direction, maybe the population has done pretty well.”
He warned people who try to eat fish out of the Cape Fear River to be careful.
“That goes back to the history of pollutants in the river,” he said. “The pathogens are not a problem if you handle the fish properly and clean them properly and cook them properly. As for the legacy pollutants that are in the river, that is a little different matter. We have a statewide mercury advisory and that still applies because that stuff doesn't clear that quickly. You've got your perflourinated components and so forth, which are a problem for some of the fishes and not others. The big catfish are loaded with mercury. I wouldn't eat them.”
The state Department of Environmental Quality said there are no storm-related advisories for consuming fish. “Typically, contaminants accumulate in fish tissue over time,” the agency said. “Therefore, we would not expect an acute event, like hurricane flooding, to result in significant increases of contaminants in fish tissues that are consumed. Caught fish should always be properly filleted, cleaned and cooked, however.”
Shellfish however, which are filter feeders, “are much more susceptible to acute events and may have increased levels of contaminants following such an event,” the DEQ said.
Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kent Burdette said that organization is concerned about the sewage discharges impact on water quality. But the impact of the human sewage on the river quality pales compared to the discharge of waste from hog and poultry operations.
“We are certainly concerned about any spill of wastewater or sewage for a lot of the same reasons that we are very concerned about waste from factory farms, from consolidated animal feeding operations,” he said. “The immediate problems with bacteria in the water is that it can make people sick.”
Burdette said the human sewage can contain pharmaceutical residues, but the real problem of a storm like Hurricane Florence is animal waste.
“In eastern North Carolina, we have 10 million hogs,” he said. “A hog produces six times as much waste a human.”
The North Carolina Pork Council said farmers properly managed the levels of their waste lagoons before the storm hit. Most of the 2,100 hog farms, which have more than 3,300 lagoons, did not see significant impact from the hurricane, the group said in a statement released five days after Florence.
“While we are dismayed by the release of some liquids from some lagoons, we also understand that what has been released from the farms is the result of a once-in-a-lifetime storm and that the contents are highly diluted with rainwater,” the statement said.
But environmentalists and scientists are concerned.
Michael Mallin, a research professor at UNC-Wilmington's Center for Marine Sciences, said the state of the fisheries in the river are a “mess” since the storm.
“There have been massive fish kills up and down river to include small and large fish, fish of all species, including endangered species sturgeon got hit hard by this storm and all the pollution that came with it,” he said.
He said there are ways to reduce waste, herbicides and pesticides that contributes to the poor water quality, but they aren't being done.
For example, hog farmers could use a waste treatment system developed by N.C. State University instead of using lagoons.
“They are perfectly usable but cost more money,” Mallin said. “The waste lagoons are basically sitting there and have all kinds of organic pollution and all kinds of bacteria viruses.”
He said chicken waste spread in a litter mixed with straw is also ending up in the river when it floods.
“There are natural sources of organic debris coming out of the swamps under normal circumstances. That is to be expected," he said. "But when you have other things -- like waste from lagoons that gets rerouted, or waste from treatment plants or septic systems -- all that makes a difference.”
Since 2000, 42 swine operations in 100-year floodplains have been bought out for a total of $18.7 million using Clean Water Management Trust Fund grants, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. A fifth round of buyouts is happening now, allowing producers to convert to other operations more compatible with flood-prone land, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said in a statement.
The program is a positive move forward, says Fred Scharf, a fisheries biology professor at UNC-Wilmington, though more needs to be done.
“I think we've seen a relaxation of some of the regulations on the conditions of those hog lagoons in the last decade or so,” he said. “It would be good to have a little tighter regulations on hog waste lagoons to make sure that the impact from those are minimal to the system, especially since it provides drinking water for so many in the southeastern part of the state.”
The public is wanting and demanding greener development and less industrialization on the state’s waterways. He cited a proposal to build a riverside cement plant in the Wilmington area that was shot down after residents fought it.
“I think that over time the mindset has changed in this region,” he said. “I think people are much more aware of how much we depend on that system not only for drinking water but lots of ecosystem functions, and how important it is we have a healthy Care Fear River system.”
John Henderson can be reached at email@example.com or 910-486-3596.