Engineering professor part of study on animal waste lagoons

A team of East Carolina University researchers will explore how capped animal waste lagoons may affect water quality thanks to a new grant.

Guy Iverson (ECU photo)

Dr. Guy Iverson, assistant professor of environmental health in ECU’s Department of Health Education and Promotion, with support from Dr. Natasha Bell, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering, has received $175,001 through the Environmental Enhancement Grant program administered through the N.C. Department of Justice to conduct the research.

Waste lagoons associated with animal farming operations have long been a concern for potential harmful effects on air and water quality. Iverson collaborated with Butler Farms near Lillington and the Waterkeepers Carolina organization to study capped waste lagoons near the Cape Fear River and noted improved air quality.

The new grant will provide funds for a three-year project that will look at water quality associated with these covered animal waste lagoons.

“Results from the pilot project indicated that the capping system was highly effective at mitigating airborne pollutants, but water quality data indicated that the CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) could be a substantial source of nitrogen, especially nitrate,” Iverson said.

That’s where Bell comes in.

“He (Iverson) wants to make sure that this potential solution of capping the lagoons isn’t actually making water quality worse even though it might be helping the air quality,” Bell said. “This particular project is building off what he’s done in the past with this farmer who is capping this lagoon. The idea is to continue monitoring water downgradient of this site and then also implement some sort of best management practice to see if we can engineer and design something and put it in place to see if we can mitigate that nutrient runoff that’s currently degrading the water quality.”

The research will involve faculty as well as undergraduate and graduate students from the College of Health and Human Performance, the College of Engineering and Technology, the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences and the Coastal Studies Institute.

Natasha Bell (ECU photo)

Bell said one possible solution may be a woodchip bioreactor, which is basically a subsurface trench of woodchips that would filter water before it reaches a surface water body such as a ditch, creek or river.

“We know these technologies, certain best management practices, like these woodchip bioreactors, have been successful for decades in other types of agricultural operations at reducing nitrogen that flows out of those systems,” Bell said. “My past experience working with these types of technologies has been in the Midwest where, similar to areas of North Carolina, they use ag filter tile drains and subsurface drainage. … The idea is to put in a filter of some kind that could intercept that shallow ground water. And there are all kinds of different materials we can use to target phosphorus or nitrogen.”

Water with high concentrations of pollutants from waste lagoons could impact ecosystems and human health, Bell said.

“If we can reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that goes into our water bodies, that means potentially fewer harmful algal blooms, fewer fish kills,” she said. “And not only ecosystem impacts but also human health impacts because some of these algal blooms emit neurotoxins. There was a story a few years ago of a woman whose dogs went swimming in a pond where there was a toxic algal bloom happening, and those dogs died, so it’s a pretty big issue when those algal blooms happen. And there’s the economic impact with fish kills as well.”

There are roughly 1,200 animal feeding operations in the Cape Fear River Basin alone, and many others throughout the state.

“This practice, if successful, will improve water quality in the Cape Fear River Basin and may also serve as a model for other CAFOs seeking to mitigate their environmental impact,” Iverson said. “Results from this project can help build capacity toward developing sustainable animal waste management practices, which is vitally important for eastern North Carolina.”

The ECU grant is among $685,327 in new funding announced by N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein. The Environmental Enhancement Grant program aims to preserve natural resources and ensure clean air and drinking water.

“Agriculture is our state’s most important industry,” Stein said in a release. “We want farming to thrive at the same time we promote practices that are good for our land. This study will help us do just that.”

According to the N.C. Department of Justice, the Environmental Enhancement Grant program began after a 2000 agreement between the Attorney General’s Office and Smithfield Foods. Under that agreement, Smithfield provides $2 million annually to be distributed among environmental projects across North Carolina. Including the 2022 grants, more than $41 million has been awarded to more than 210 projects in the state.