Hurricane impacts in coastal areas are generally from high winds and dangerous storm surge. In inland areas, flooding from heavy rain poses a bigger threat, and the devastating flooding that hit the Houston area from Hurricane Harvey’s 51 inches of rain is proof. It’s been reported that floodwater in some parts of the Houston area contained E. coli counts over 135 times higher than what is considered safe for swimming. E. coli (Escherichia coli) is a type of bacteria that lives in the digestive tracts of warm-blooded organisms and can cause serious health impacts to people who are exposed—often through contaminated food and water. It’s gross, but it’s also a real threat to public health.
Some of the E. coli pollution in Houston is flowing from damaged infrastructure like sewage treatment plants that were inundated with floodwaters and that, in some cases, may still be offline. Some of it, though, is likely running off of factory farms located within the 54 Texas counties declared a disaster area. Factory farms produce a lot of manure and when they’re built in areas prone to flooding they can result in the release of huge amounts of toxic pollution during heavy rains and high water.
We’ve Seen This Before
The flooding of factory farms from hurricane-related extreme rainfall is actually old news. Hurricane Floyd tore through North Carolina in 1999, and the resulting flooding drowned tens of thousands of chickens and hogs in factory farms. Fifty-five lagoons were inundated with floodwaters and six were breached. Tons of manure flowed downstream to where it polluted North Carolina’s beaches and eventually caused a 350-square mile dead zone in Pamlico Sound, the second largest estuary in the nation.
After the devastation wrought by Floyd, North Carolina’s General Assembly authorized a buyout program which resulted in the closure of 42 hog farms within the floodplain. While this eliminated 103 lagoons, there are at least another 150 in the floodplain which were never closed and continued to pose a risk to water quality and downstream communities.
Fast forward to Hurricane Matthew, which slammed into southeastern North Carolina in the fall of 2016. An estimated 1.7 million chickens, 112,000 turkeys and 2,800 swine drowned in the resulting flooding. Flooding caused at least 14 hog lagoons to overflow, sending a toxic cocktail of E. coli, salmonella, cryptosporidium and other contaminants downstream—again. Aerial photos show hog farms completely surrounded by floodwaters—again.
And now on to Harvey. According to the USDA, 1.2 million beef cattle (over a quarter of the state’s herd) live within those 54 counties affected by the hurricane. What we don’t know, however, is how many of those cattle live on factory farm feedlots and how much flooding they experienced. The reason we don’t know? It’s in part due to a Texas law passed during the 2017 legislative session (which, ironically, went into effect September 1) that classifies factory farms as “critical infrastructure” and thus makes it a jailable offense to simply fly a drone over a factory farm—even if no photos are taken. Texas has gone to extreme lengths to protect factory farms from scrutiny, so it’s difficult to know for certain what impact Harvey’s floodwaters had. But with over a million cattle located in the region, it is nearly certain factory farms contributed to the toxic stew of bacteria now confronting flooded communities.
Why Are Factory Farms Located in Floodplains?
Why are factory farms allowed to be built in floodplains in hurricane-prone areas? States generally don’t regulate the two things that are of biggest concern to local communities—odor and location. And communities in North Carolina and other states have largely been stripped of their authority to influence the permitting process for factory farms. This loss of “local control” means communities often have no say in where new factory farms will be located and are thus unable to stop them from being built within floodplains or in other vulnerable areas. This coupled with the stranglehold Big Ag has on many state legislatures means factory farms will continue to be constructed in areas at risk of being flooded by the “next big one.”
Factory farming has gained a foothold in areas at risk for hurricanes and weather disasters across the country—cattle in Texas, poultry in Delmarva, Georgia and Florida, hogs in North and South Carolina. And superstorms like Floyd, Matthew and Harvey continue to cause disastrous flooding. The combination poses an enormous public health risk for millions of people. With climate change increasing the likelihood and intensity of storms, now more than ever it’s time to get rid of factory farms.