North Carolina’s environmental regulatory agency should require large-scale hog farms to use cleaner technologies when storing the animals’ waste so it can be converted to energy, according to environmental groups legally challenging the state’s new general biogas permits.
The Environmental Justice Community Action Network and Cape Fear River Watch are taking to task the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, challenging the agency’s digester waste management system general permits, which allow concentrated feeding animal operations, or CAFOs, to use what the groups call “outdated” lagoon-and-sprayfield systems.
The groups argue that storing untreated hog feces and urine in capped pits then spraying the waste onto fields produce more harmful emissions, polluting air, waterways and groundwater, a drinking water source for rural communities in which these operations occur.
DEQ’s general biogas permit, which went into effect July 1, lacks protections to account for that additional anticipated pollution, strips residents of the rural, largely Black, Hispanic and low-income communities where the hog farms are located from being able to engage in public input, and fails to comply with state law requiring cleaner technology, opponents argue.
“We think it’s DEQ’s obligation under the law to require whatever cleaner technology is best for a particular hog operation because the scale and size of these hog operations that may apply for the biogas general permit vary significantly,” said Blakely Hildebrand, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, or SELC.
As of Sept. 27, 2021, 15 out of more than 2,083 permitted swine facilities in the state have one or more animal waste digester systems, according to information on DEQ’s website. A little more than half of those are in Duplin County, where pork giant Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy have plans to build a biogas facility.
Digesters are used to convert manure into biogas, which produces naturally when microorganisms break down organic matter in an oxygen-free, or anaerobic process.
According to the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, biogas created through the anaerobic process consists of about 60% methane gas.
Methane-based biogas can be converted to renewable natural gas through a process that increases the methane concentration from about 60% to 96% while reducing the gasses’ moisture and carbon dioxide content, according to the center’s website.
Environmental and community groups say the lagoon-and-sprayfield system offers the least environmental protection because the ammonia and other gases trapped in covered lagoons will produce higher amounts of nitrogen, which gets sprayed onto farm fields when the lagoon-and-sprayfield system is used.
Covered lagoons can contain up to 3.5 times the amount of nitrogen as uncovered lagoons, according to the Colorado State University Extension.
“Because this permit could apply to numerous hog operations it raises a lot of concern among community members and the conservation community around additional pollution that will result from this permit,” Hildebrand said.
She made clear that the groups are not recommending one specific technology.
“There is certainly room for an anaerobic digester in an overall waste management system that addresses both the climate crisis as well as the underlying pollution and sickness that is caused by storing billions of gallons of hog waste in giant pits in the ground and then spraying it on fields,” Hildebrand said.
Take, for example, Premium Standard Farms Inc., a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, which operates a CAFO in northwest Missouri that uses an advanced nitrification and denitrification system.
This system is designed to reduce odor, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide air emissions from wastewater treatment sources and the amount of nitrogen sprayed onto the land by at least 50%.
Sherri White-Williamson, cofounder of the Environmental Justice Community Action Network, pushed back against suggestions the group wants to put an industry out of business. Rather, she said, they want the industry to be more responsible for the environment in which the residents they represent live.
“A general permit is a one-size fits all system, regardless of the number of animals you have,” she said. “That doesn’t seem to make good environmental sense. At the very minimum we would like to see the denitrification system that has shown to be better for taking care of the toxins that come out of this process. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.”
DEQ also should step up its monitoring requirements from once a year to at least quarterly, she said.
DEQ’s own Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board in written comments to the agency called for monitoring.
The four individual biogas permits the state issued to hog farm operators last year, “do not require any regular air or water monitoring to assess the nature or volume of any emissions or discharges or the impact thereof on public health or the local environment,” according to the board.
Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette did not return a call seeking comment, but he stated in a news release that the North Carolina General Assembly’s passage of the Farm Act of 2021 and DEQ’s general permit, “are just the latest in a long line of decisions that ignore the devastating effect that the hog industry has on our environment. Far from a solution to our climate crisis, this permit gives industry a rubber stamp to keep polluting our air and water rather than holding them accountable to the law.”
Smithfield Foods has partnered with Dominion Energy to invest more than $500 million in biogas development in North Carolina, Virginia and Utah.
The companies have formed Align Renewable Natural Gas LLC, which is proposing to link 19 farms in Duplin and Sampson counties through a pipeline to a facility in Duplin County.
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the legal challenge on behalf of the groups July 29 in the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings.
This is the latest challenge against the state’s biogas permits, which apply to swine, cattle and wet poultry operations. The general permit for swine may be obtained by existing operations of 250 or more hogs.
In January, the SELC filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of the Duplin County branch of the NAACP and North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign, launching an investigation into whether the state’s issuance of four biogas permits violated civil rights.
Hildebrand said the EPA has not made an announcement, but she hopes to hear something soon.
“It’s easy to talk about these abstract contexts of biogas making pollution worse, but I think what’s also really important to remember in all of this is that people live near these hog operations,” Hildebrand said. “They have dealt with this noxious odor and polluted water and dirty air for decades. There’s a real human cost to this permit and to industry’s insistence on doubling down on the very harmful lagoon-and-sprayfield system. This is a significant environmental justice issue in eastern North Carolina and one that demands and deserves the attention of our elected officials and the agency that is charged with protecting the environment and the health of people who live in the state.”