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Impacts of industrial animal production on rivers and estuaries

Mallin, Michael A. American Scientist; Research Triangle Park Vol. 88, Iss. 1,  (Jan/Feb 2000): 26-37.

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Headnote

Animal-waste lagoons and sprayfields near aquatic environments may significantly degrade water quality and endanger health

On June 22, 1995, the citizens of Onslow County in North Carolina's Coastal Plain awoke to a remarkably unpleasant sight. During the previous evening a swine waste-holding lagoon had ruptured, sending approximately 25 million gallons (95 million liters) of concentrated feces and urine across a road and fields and into the New River, a coastal namesake of the far longer and older Appalachian river. During the following day the putrefying mass traveled approximately 22 miles down the river, where it slowed just upstream of the city of Jacksonville. Over the next few days, some of this waste load would work its way down into the New River Estuary. There its effects on marine life would linger for three months.

For the previous year, my laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington had been studying the water quality of the New River Estuary in collaboration with JoAnn Burkholder's laboratory at North Carolina State University. After a hasty exchange of phone calls early on the 23rd, each lab sent a team to help investigate the effects of the enormous spill. My research assistant, Matt McIver, and I drove from Wilmington north to the town of Richlands, which has the sign "Welcome to Richlands-Town of Perfect Water" at the city limits. Finding a bridge under which the New River passed, we scrambled down the slope to find carcasses of fish representing numerous local species scattered along the bank and hanging in streamside bushes, the water turned murky brown with turbidity and a nauseating stench in the air. During the rest of the afternoon we checked various other accessible locations along the river, collecting water samples while state fish and wildlife workers picked up dead fish...