Riverkeepers, specialist find ‘telltale’ signs of swamp pollution

Environmental, Sound Rivers

Posted on March 23rd, 2023

Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop carefully takes a water sample at the site of a hog waste spill in Nahunta Swamp last year.

Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell and Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop introduced Sound Rivers’ new water quality specialist, Taylor Register, to the swamp this week, and an ongoing pollution issue the Riverkeepers have been tracking since last summer.

As they did last December, they loaded up their kayaks to collect water quality samples next to White Oak Farms, a hog CAFO and biogas facility in Fremont, located next to Nahunta Swamp. Last May, the biogas digester at White Oak Farms burst, and millions of gallons of hog waste, dead hogs, and expired deli meat products spilled out of the covered lagoon, covering the property. Some of this waste ended up in Nahunta Swamp.

When the going gets tough: the tough slog their kayaks over fallen trees. Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop and Water Quality Specialist Taylor Register tackle one of many obstacles Nahunta Swamp offers.

According to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s official comment, the facility was cleaned up by the end of last summer. However, the Riverkeepers are skeptical that’s the case, considering NCDEQ has not provided a single document of a public records request made last August for all information related to the facility, its permit and the cleanup effort. Neither does the Riverkeepers’ data reflect it as a successful clean-up: the samples collected in December had extremely high levels of bacteria and nitrogen in the surface water next to the facility, as well as strong markers for swine DNA. This wasn’t the case upstream of the facility.

According to conversations with NCDEQ staff, none of the spilled material was removed from the site — instead, waste was pushed back under the digester cover, into the barns and spread out across the fields. What remains unknown is how extensive any other cleanup efforts were and what sampling was conducted to confirm pollution was not leaving the site.

“Until we have documents to review, we don’t know enough about the clean-up, and that’s why we keep going back out there. They don’t have data to back it up, and we have data from December that counters their narrative,” Jill said.

While NCDEQ has received Sound Rivers’ results that point to an ongoing pollution source at the site and were asked to take immediate action, Jill said the agency has sent no formal response, so there is no way to know if it has followed up with an investigation.

This week’s samples are being analyzed for the same parameters and will be shared when the lab results are returned.

Nahunta Swamp, like the rest of eastern North Carolina, was alive with spring this week.

Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop said it was no easy endeavor to get to the site by water — navigating over, under and around trees blocking the creek made it a difficult trek through the swamp. And while the swamp was in full spring swing, there were telltale signs of the pollution that Jill, Sam and Taylor were there to document.

“I think that one thing we all appreciated was that it was incredibly beautiful in the swamp. You wouldn’t expect it looking at the creek from the roadside. Most people would drive by and wouldn’t notice it at all. But while we were down there, it was lovely. It was really beautiful and peaceful on the creek,” Sam said. “While the surrounding ecology was beautiful, it was clear there is an impact to the water itself. We could smell hog waste, and there was algae in the water.”

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