Riverkeeper win: White Oak must close existing hog-waste lagoons

CAFOs, Environmental, Neuse River Watershed, Sound Rivers, Water Quality

Posted on December 14th, 2023

Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop and Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Katey Zimmerman venture into Nahunta Swamp to get water samples.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality requires a polluting industrial facility in Wayne County to close its existing hog-waste lagoons and biogas digester system — a win for Sound Rivers’ Riverkeepers.

NCDEQ issued the latest in a string of notices of violation (NOV) to White Oak Farms/Legacy Biogas, located outside of Fremont, on Nov. 29. The NOV cites the facility’s failure to take several remedial actions required by DEQ after a massive hog-waste spill in May of 2022, including testing for groundwater contamination. Because the facility has failed to take remedial action and fully clean up after the spill, it has contributed to ongoing pollution of Nahunta Swamp. The NOV explains the facility’s options: it can apply for a new permit, but any new permit will only cover new lagoons — the existing, damaged lagoons must be closed – or submit a closure plan for the facility to the agency.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the NOV,” said Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop. “In this NOV, NCDEQ acknowledges not only the facility’s failure to do the required groundwater monitoring but also acknowledges that White Oak Farms is polluting in an ongoing fashion, which is consistent with months of sampling conducted by Sound Rivers.”

Sam discovered the spill during a routine fly-over of the area in August of 2022, more than two months after a digester covering a hog-waste lagoon burst, spilling millions of gallons of foam composed of decomposing hog waste, dead hogs and expired deli meat. More than 40,000 gallons of foam waste ended up in Nahunta Swamp. With the exception of a small legal ad in a local paper, neither NCDEQ nor the facility publicized the incident, and NCDEQ later stated the site was cleaned up appropriately. 

Water Quality Specialist Taylor Register collects water samples from White Oak Farms runoff into Nahunta Swamp in October.

However, Sound Rivers’ staff — Sam, former Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell, Water Quality Specialist Taylor Register and current Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Katey Zimmerman — had doubts. The team launched what became a year-and-half-long investigation into the ongoing pollution of the swamp, which flows into Contentnea Creek, a Neuse River tributary and popular fishing creek.

In December 2022, Sound Rivers’ monitoring of Nahunta Swamp’s surface water at and downstream of the facility returned extremely high and harmful levels of nitrogen, fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria. Sound Rivers shared these results with NCDEQ, and the agency launched its own investigation. Additional sampling efforts in 2023 revealed that water quality was not improving, suggesting continuing pollution from the facility.

“Had we not followed up, gone out there and collected and tested the water, no one would know hog waste has been polluting the swamp for the last year and a half,” Sam said. “While it’s good to see NCDEQ is acknowledging that there is an ongoing pollution issue and requiring action from the facility, there is more to be done. Now, the facility and Nahunta Swamp need to be fully cleaned up.”

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