For this Swim Guide Spotlight, we reached out to Patrick Connell from Cape Fear River Watch to learn more about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations in North Carolina and how they affect water quality.
Where: North Carolina, USA
Number of regions: 1
Number of sites: 11
Sampling season: May to October
Sampling frequency: Bi-Weekly
Swim Guide Affiliate since: 2020
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Patrick: My name’s Patrick Connell. I am the field research manager for Cape Fear River Watch. I graduated from The University of North Carolina at Wilmington in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science. Around 2015, I got involved with Cape Fear River Watch (CFRW) and I have been there ever since. I primarily work in areas that hold the highest concentrations of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in the state and in terms of hog facilities, the world. I travel to these sites and take water samples, analyze them at the CFRW lab, and keep an eye on the general area. In addition, with support from Southwings and other volunteer pilots, I am able to monitor the waste-management practices of these facilities from the sky.
Patrick: Essentially, a CAFO is a factory farm. The operation’s main goal is to produce high quantities of meat and eggs for human consumption at a rapid pace from cattle, poultry, and pigs.
This is not a farm in the traditional sense. When you think of a farm, you imagine a red barn with a couple of pigs running around. This is not the case with CAFOs, which usually have a couple of barns with livestock densely packed in. The animals do not go outside. They sit in the barns with very little space and the goal is to get them as big as possible as quickly as possible.
The density of animals and the extreme amount of waste associated with them, is the main issue with these facilities. Southeastern North Carolina contains the highest density of hogs in the world and our poultry industry, which requires no waste-water permitting, is rapidly increasing. The large quantity of operations and the animals they contain creates a recipe for unsustainability and potential disaster. In North Carolina alone, 8.7 million hogs and over a hundred-million turkeys and chickens are processed annually in the counties that I monitor.
Animal waste is a primary concern for Cape Fear River Watch. We deal with nine billion gallons of liquid waste from the hogs and millions of pounds of dry waste from the poultry. These numbers are hard to fathom, but it gives you an idea as to why we have an issue with animal waste in our river basin.
Patrick: Hog waste is flushed through slats in barns and piped into open air lagoons. From the lagoons, waste is pumped through industrial-sized sprayers and applied onto fields to be used as crop fertilizer. Lagoon sizes vary from Olympic-sized pools to smaller ponds. In the lagoons, “treatment” occurs through anaerobic respiration. Bacteria break down organic matter and create byproducts. From this process, gases in the form of methane, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide are released. In the effluent itself, we have a variety of compounds, ranging from different forms of nitrogen and phosphorus, antibiotics and bacteria. Poultry waste in our area is primarily stored as dry waste. Poultry barns are cleaned out a couple times a year. Dry waste from the operations are stockpiled and eventually applied onto fields as well. From a bird’s- eye view, it looks like an epidemic on the land, with lagoons covering the landscape for as far as the eye can see.
This antiquated process of waste management is where the issue lies. Imagine New York City taking the waste of its residents, not treating it, and pumping it out across the landscape in neighboring areas. One can’t imagine that being ok, or that it would have no negative impacts. The same follows suit for factory farm operations in our area. This model is unsustainable and frankly, ridiculous.
Patrick: Yes. We are in the southeast of North Carolina, a coastal plain, so we are very prone to flooding. Many of these facilities’ spray fields are located adjacent to creeks and streams that flow into our rivers. And the fields are oftentimes saturated even under normal conditions. With climate change, we have been seeing a higher frequency of storms which cause massive flooding. This is our biggest fear. Once a flood meets these pools it cleans them out and all the untreated waste gets directly carried into the rivers that we monitor. This nightmare scenario has already occurred multiple times in North Carolina during recent and past storms.
Patrick: We mostly test for bacteria and nutrients. Nutrients monitored are nitrate, nitrites, phosphorus, and ammonia. Bacteria being monitored are fecal coliforms and E. coli. It is common for us to get results which are triple and quadruple the state standards for fecal coliforms. The state standard is a 200 count of E. coli for 100 mL of water, and we have seen counts higher than 60,000.
Patrick: Absolutely. Data collected by us, other Riverkeepers, and other organizations repeatedly show that factory farming is detrimental to people and the environment. That is why we continue to collect all this data, we want to show the impact CAFOs have on our water. In my opinion, CAFOs are the biggest threat to our local environment. By showing this data to the community and elected officials, we are hoping to bring about positive change.
Patrick: In my opinion, a complete elimination of the CAFO model would be the ideal. In reality, Unfortunately, I don’t know if that’s possible. We understand that the demand for food is great and rising, and this type of food production answers that demand. At the very least, I would like to see proper treatment of the waste, prior to discharge. To me, that is the clearest immediate route to prevent the pollution of our water system.
Patrick: I would want folks to realize and to pay attention to where your food comes from and how you are getting it. It is not just a slab of meat that comes from thin air. There is a way that this food got to you. Think about the impact of the way the food got to you. You can make small changes in your lifestyle that will impact the greater issue.
Patrick: We have tons of volunteer opportunities. On the first Saturday of every month, we hold educational seminars which the general public can attend.
On the second Saturdays, we hold our monthly cleanups. We invite everyone to come out and participate in a large-scale cleanup. We provide all the tools you will need. It is really great to see the difference you can make, right in front of you.
On the fourth Saturday, we have the Creekwatcher’s program. In this program, we train citizen scientists to go out and make field observations and take water samples. The goal is to keep an eye on the general health of our waterways.
Patrick: The watershed’s secret? I’ve got a ton of my secret fishing spots (laughs). One good watershed secret is that the Black River, which eventually flows into the Cape Fear River, is home to a Bald Cypress which has been identified as the fifth oldest tree in the world. The secret is you don’t know which one it is! It is only accessible by small watercraft. Being around these ancient trees, you can’t help but feel like you are being transported into prehistoric times. They are incredible.
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