Sound Rivers investigates Swift Creek hog waste spill

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

Posted on May 2nd, 2024

Water Quality Specialist Taylor Register takes water-quality readings at Swift Creek on Thursday (accompanied by a tiger swallowtail butterfly).

An unknown amount of hog waste spilling into Swift Creek prompted a notice from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to stay out of the creek — and prompted a Sound Rivers investigation.

“This was a major spill that traveled over a mile downstream through a small network of tributaries/ditches to Swift Creek and highlights an all-too-common problem with the waste lagoon and sprayfield system,” said Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop.

On Tuesday morning, a third party called the NCDEQ to report waste in a ditch. NCDEQ staff investigated and found the waste had reached Swift Creek, a tributary of the Neuse River. Late Wednesday morning, NCDEQ issued a press release describing the spill as “discharge attributed to over-application of animal waste, resulting in run-off” at St. John Farm, on St. John Road in Grifton. The NCDEQ advisory covers 10 miles of Swift Creek and urges residents to avoid fishing and recreational activity in Swift Creek.

Water Quality Specialist Taylor Register visited the site on Wednesday afternoon.

Swift Creek upstream of the spill site.

“I checked out two sites on Swift Creek that surround the spill area: Honolulu Road, which is upstream, and downstream at Pughtown Road,” Taylor said. “At Honolulu Road, the creek was running clear with no odor. Pughtown Road was visibly more turbid, and while the odor wasn’t overwhelming, it was a bit smelly.”

Swift Creek, far more turbid and “smelly,” downstream of the spill site.

On Thursday, she was back again, this time to take water samples and readings.

“The dissolved oxygen was high, and that can be indicative of an algal bloom, which are generally fueled by excess nutrient pollution in a waterway,” Taylor said. 

Animal waste pollutes waterways with fecal bacteria, elevated nutrients and heavy metals. Spills of this nature can lead to algal blooms, fish kills, degraded aquatic habitats and a public health threat, including pollution of drinking water supplies. According to the EPA, the concentration of pollution in raw manure is as much as 110 times greater than that of raw municipal sewage.

According to Samantha, the spill into this already impaired creek could have been avoided.

“This spill highlights systemic problems with the lagoon and sprayfield system that all too often result in the pollution of our waterways,” Samantha said. “This facility has a history of issues with their irrigation system, including in the most recent inspection date of April 19, where evidence of incorrect land application was noted, and North Carolina has a history of allowing pollution from industrial animal facilities to continue without penalty or sufficient cleanup. Part of the problem is we have a regulatory agency that is underfunded and bad actors aren’t being held accountable.”

The amount of hog waste that made it into Swift Creek is not known at this time, and there is no current cleanup effort.

Samantha said the Swift Creek spill underscores a much larger problem: an outdated system which shouldn’t be used at all, much less in places where environmental harm is likely, such as in floodplains, wetlands and near water bodies. While the state has a program to buy out industrial animal facilities located within the 100-year floodplain, the North Carolina General Assembly does not fund it.

She also said the incident demonstrates how the spill could have gone unreported had it not been for the person who saw a problem and made a phone call. 

“We appreciate the community member who reported this pollution issue,” Samantha said. “This goes to show how important local community members can be in protecting our waterways.”

The location of the spill site on Swift Creek, a tributary of the Neuse River.

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