Win-Win Buyout Program Prevents More Losses in NC’s Floodplain

floodplain cafo hurricane matthew hogs

Co-Written by Will Hendrick, Waterkeeper Alliance Staff Attorney and North Carolina Pure Farms, Pure Waters Campaign Manager & Matthew Starr, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper

In North Carolina, industrial hog facilities located near rivers, lakes, and streams in the 100-year floodplain are, especially during hurricane season, an ever-present threat to environmental quality and community health. The State permit governing industrial swine farms requires them to be designed, constructed and operated to contain all waste onsite in the event of the “maximum 24-hour precipitation event with a probable recurrence interval of once in 25 years.” But the permit uses storm-predictions developed in 1961, despite evidence of increasing frequency and magnitude of storm events in North Carolina.  

Moreover, flood waters rise regardless of permit compliance, making concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) inherently vulnerable whenever they are located in the 100-year floodplain. That’s why, in 1995, the NC General Assembly prohibited construction of new swine CAFOs in the 100-year floodplain.

Four years later, Hurricane Floyd provided a stark reminder of the danger of permitting CAFOs in the floodplain. As a result of that storm, conservative estimates suggest 55 hog waste lagoons flooded, 6 breached, and 21,474 hogs died. In response, the State established a wholly voluntary “buyout program” administered by the Division of Soil and Water Conservation (DSWC) within the Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.  Under the program, into which the legislature initially invested a total of $18.7M, applicants could access funding to close hog CAFOs in the 100-year floodplain if they agreed to place a conservation easement on the facility.

The demand for buyouts far exceeded the supply of funding during each of the four cycles in which DSWC accepted applications. In the first round in 1999, DSWC received 85 applications totaling over $50M in requested funds. To efficiently allocate limited resources, an advisory panel scored applications based on a variety of factors including the structural condition of the facility’s waste lagoons relative to current standards, the elevation of the top of the lagoon dike relative to the 100-year flood elevation for the site, the elevation of the production houses relative to the 100-year flood elevation for the site, the facility’s history of flooding, the distance to a water body that is classified as either water supply or high-quality waters, and the applicant’s willingness to install a 100 ft buffer adjacent to all blue line streams in the easement area. Based on these criteria, 16 applicants were selected in 1999 for projects costing a total of $5.7M. Applications were solicited again in 2001, 2004, and 2007; in each year the amount of available funding was dwarfed by the cost of voluntary conversion projects. In 2007, requests from the 34 applicants totaled $20M, but only $3M of the original $18.7M remained. Over the course of the four application windows, 138 facilities applied at least once for funding.  

The program successfully closed 43 swine CAFOs in the 100-year floodplain before exhausting the available $18.7M. These facilities had a collective permitted capacity of 60,550 hogs, included 106 waste lagoons and were located on 1,218 acres that will be covered by conservation easements. The public benefit is undeniable.  Even the N.C. Pork Council supports the buyout program, and its new CEO is on record stating “We applaud the success of the previous voluntary buyout program, and we think everyone agrees that it was a successful initiative.”

Never was the benefit of the buyout program more apparent than in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which struck North Carolina in 2016, causing record flooding. According to DSWC, 32 of the 43 swine CAFOs removed pursuant to the buyout program would have otherwise flooded as a result of Hurricane Matthew. Unfortunately, there are still 62 industrial hog growing operations in the 100-year floodplain in Eastern North Carolina; there are another 47 within 100 feet of the floodplain. Many of these facilities were impacted by Hurricane Matthew, underscoring the need for re-investment in the buyout program.

During the 2017 legislative session, environmental advocates called for this re-investment. Thankfully, those calls did not fall on deaf ears; the General Assembly provided additional funding to the buyout program in the state budget. Although the amount thereof is still unclear (essentially, the budget allocated the remainder of the $25.5M devoted to wildfire recovery in Disaster Recovery Act of 2016), DSWC predicts it will be between $2 and $4.5M. DSWC is seeking additional funding for this program in the form of a federal grant.

All told, the swine buyout program is an extremely popular, wholly voluntary, cost-effective way of mitigating the impact of CAFOs in the 100-year floodplain. Waterkeeper Alliance and our partners will continue to push for recurring investment in this program, as it is truly a win-win for CAFO operators and the environment.  

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