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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Floyd's Toxic Wake

Air Date: Week of October 1, 1999

Flooding in North Carolina has left behind sewage, chemicals, and millions of dead farm animals. Host Steve Curwood talks with reporter James Shiffer of the Raleigh News and Observer about what's being done to bring public health risks under control, and what can be done in the future to prevent this kind of environmental crisis.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's been more than two weeks since Hurricane Floyd trampled North Carolina. In many towns people are beginning to put their lives back together, but in other areas flooding has barely retreated. And more rains didn't help. The standing water and saturated earth have left officials with huge public health problems. Reporter James Shiffer spoke to us from the newsroom at the Raleigh News and Observer. He says the state's immediate concern is water quality.

SHIFFER: A lot of eastern North Carolina depends on groundwater for their drinking water, and an unknown number of those wells have been contaminated with bacteria. There's a "boil water" advisory for all of eastern North Carolina until further notice. There are growing concerns about mold growing in soggy carpeting and upholstery. People are still asked to avoid getting in contact with the flood waters for fear of tetanus and other illnesses. And actually, a warning went out to folks swimming at North Carolina's beaches not to put their heads underwater, because that water is affected by the outflow from the rivers.

CURWOOD: I hear that animal carcasses are a big problem there, too.

SHIFFER: Well, yeah. Eastern North Carolina has one of the largest -- it's a major animal producing area. It's number one in turkeys, number two in hogs, and they were not spared Floyd's wrath. There are estimates now of more than 30,000 hogs were killed, more than a million chicken and turkeys. It's really, this is kind of a problem that North Carolina's never faced before. What do you do with all these dead animals, which they are really concerned could spread disease through flies. So, there's been incinerators working around the clock for more than a week to dispose of these hogs, and they're not apparently doing the job as well as they thought it would. So they're trying to find places to bury the animals as well.

CURWOOD: Now, with all that flooding, you've been worried about bacterial contamination from dead animals and such. But what about chemicals? That flooding will leach chemicals up out of the ground if they've been stored there, or if they're in factories or being stored in stores. Any problems with those?

SHIFFER: Oh yes. It's also being called the worst catastrophe for hazardous materials releases in the state's history. There are approximately 2,800 underground storage tanks and an estimated 20,000 other home heating oil tanks, propane tanks, which were underwater in the flood area. EPA sent a team out to actually lasso runaway chemical drums and propane tanks that were floating down the river, to try to keep them from leaking. But anyone who's seen any of the flood has smelled the petroleum on it and seen the rainbow slicks.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you think that some of the problems facing North Carolina now could have been avoided or mitigated with better preparation or different policies.

SHIFFER: Well, I think that it's an obvious thing to do to ask, well, how natural was this natural disaster? There's already questions about why so many swine farms, wastewater treatment plants, even homes were in floodplains, and whether they should be rebuilt. And there's questions about whether the development in the more urban areas contributed more storm water to the rivers. I think there's going to be a lot of hard questions asked about whether we should do things differently next time, and the way that we have developed.

CURWOOD: I know recovery is still very much underway at this point. But what do you think it'll be like over the long term? How long will it take before the public health risk will be reduced, brought back under control?

SHIFFER: Officials are really saying that it may be months to years before we know the toll on environmental health and the larger issues of what its effect is going to be on the environment, in the estuaries and beyond. No one knows how long that's going to take to flush out.

CURWOOD: James Shiffer, reporter with the Raleigh News and Observer, joined us from his newsroom there in Raleigh. Thanks so much for taking this time with us.

SHIFFER: Thanks, Steve.

 

 

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