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Flooding demonstrates need for tighter regulation

Tropical Weather-Toxic Sites-1

Gray muck floats on top of the Cape Fear River near the L.V. Sutton Plant near Wilmington, N.C. Floodwaters breached a dam at the electricity generating plant after Hurricane Florence and overtopped a coal ash dump, potentially spilling toxic materials into the river.

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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Hurricane Florence turned the Cape Fear River into more of an open sewer than it already was. The heavy rains and flooding added human waste, livestock waste, industrial waste, petrochemical runoff and other hazardous substances to a river that was already profoundly compromised by the waste streams that were somehow allowed by law.

The extent of the river pollution raises serious public policy questions that need to be addressed. It is urgent and procrastination should be punishable by losses at the polls.

We’ve heard a great deal about the problems caused by massive amounts of animal waste from the pork and poultry industries, which annually raise millions of hogs and tens of millions of chickens and turkeys in this region. Both use primitive technology for waste disposal and have been reluctant to upgrade to safer disposal solutions that are readily available but more expensive than old fashioned open cesspools and piles of poultry litter. The problem is compounded by the location of many of these factory-scale farms in flood plains, where they are vulnerable, especially to epic floods like those brought by hurricanes Floyd, Matthew and Florence.

Tighter regulation is needed and some of those factory farms need to be moved to higher ground. Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed Florence relief package includes funding for farm buyouts and relocations.

While state lawmakers and regulators need to find better solutions to those problems, they turn out to be only one part of the danger we face from the growing number of flooding events that appears to be North Carolina’s new normal. Even more contaminants were released into the Cape Fear and its tributaries by sources we had previously believed to be under control: our municipal sewer systems.

As an Observer story reported Sunday, nearly 40 million gallons of untreated sewage was discharged into the river basin after Florence struck, as municipal sewer systems were unable to cope with the flooding. According to state records, the raw or partially treated sewage was spilled from systems from Greensboro down to New Hanover County. Another 2.1 million gallons of sewage were spilled into the Lumber River basin. Here in Fayetteville, about 6.4 million gallons were spilled from the Public Works Commission’s sewage processing systems.

It should be clear to all our regulators and public officials that we need to make further investments in our sewage-treatment facilities to prevent this kind of toxic release in future storms. It’s going to cost money, but considering the public health risks, we don’t have much choice.

The Fayetteville Observer

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