Bird Flu comes to North Carolina

What does this mean for water quality?

In early February, experts across the state began to sound the alarm to another infectious outbreak in our state. As of mid-February, 65 strains of avian influenza have been detected in wild bird populations in several counties across the state. Though this virus does not pose an immediate threat as a vector to infect humans, this highly infectious strain of influenza has the poultry industry on high-alert, and for good reason. 

Industrial scale animal operations, or CAFOs, pack hundreds or thousands of animals into extremely cramped barns. Poultry barns average around 20,000 birds per building, and many operations have between 5-40 barns. In the Haw River watershed, where land is not as expansive but more costly than in the coastal plain, we typically see operations with between 2-6 barns each. If a case of avian influenza were to infect a flock of birds within a confined area, 60 – 100% of the flock could die from the illness within a few days. With the risk of total loss so high, mass culling could also be used as a preventative measure. This would result in mass burial and disposal of the dead and infected birds, which could quickly overwhelm state veterinary, environmental, and public health agencies.

The disposal of these birds pose a significant risk to waterways and neighboring communities, especially in low-lying areas in floodplains or in the coastal plain of North Carolina. Piles of dead birds have already been reported in fields, which creates terrible smells for neighbors and can expose the birds, along with the virus and the bacterial and nutrient loads from their manure pile,  to wind and rain that carry those pollutants into nearby streams. Culling flocks and mass burials can result from a range of problems, from distribution issues to processing delays, but catastrophic events such as floods or disease can overwhelm the systems put in place to regulate those burials.

There are four main methods for disposal of these birds: rendering, landfills, composting, or on-site burial. Rendering facilities can quickly be overwhelmed in events like this, which makes it difficult to rely on for timeliness. Landfills are commonly used in these events, but rural communities can quickly be overwhelmed by the volume of birds. Landfill liners have also been known to not completely prevent leaching of contaminants into groundwater. Burial typically happens on site, and the sites must be pre-approved. The regulations put in place do not allow for the birds to be buried with litter, which makes it difficult to use burial for disposal in a mass culling. Composting is the most common and typically happens on site. Operators can leave the birds, and their manure, uncovered for as much as 28 days.  

Groundwater contamination in mass burial events is a considerable threat, especially in the eastern part of the state where groundwater tables are high. Industrial poultry operations generally store the waste from the barns in open piles on site. These piles contain high levels of pathogens, bacteria, and toxic levels of nutrient pollution, which is carried by wind and rain into nearby streams. In a statewide disease outbreak, the scale of the disposal becomes a major threat. Hundreds of thousands of dead birds, and their waste, could be left in fields until they are buried. Groundwater is less regulated than other drinking water sources; filtration systems vary from home to home and may not filter out E.Coli or nitrates.  

The lack of transparency in this avian flu outbreak is troubling. The NC Department of Agriculture will work directly with the State Veterinarian to determine if a case has been reported in an industrial operation, and begin the disposal of the infected birds. Though required to be publicly available, burial sites may not be shared with surrounding farmers or communities quickly and notices are not sent to surrounding communities. Without this information in a timely manner,  spread of the contagion may be difficult to control, potential contamination of private groundwater wells will be difficult to assess, and those with private wells may not know the possible threats to their water supply. Like the poultry industry itself, this avian influenza outbreak has shown how little oversight our state agencies have to exercise any regulatory authority to protect neighboring communities and our environment. 

In North Carolina, the poultry industry is largely unregulated, and the few regulations that are in place are not enforced. The Department of Environmental Quality has no records of where these facilities are located, how many birds are housed in each facility, or how much waste produced from these facilities is being applied on neighboring fields. Without a permitting system for poultry operations, this industry has been exponentially growing and polluting our streams and groundwater for decades. The latest outbreak of avian influenza shows us how this lack of oversight can quickly result in catastrophic impacts to both farmers and surrounding communities.