Civil Rights Groups in North Carolina Say ‘Biogas’ From Hog Waste Will Harm Communities of Color

In a complaint filed with the EPA, the activists alleged that creating natural gas from methane in hog waste will increase ammonia pollution in the air and water.

Pigs stand in a pen at a farm in Ayden, North Carolina on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018. Credit: Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Pigs stand in a pen at a farm in Ayden, North Carolina on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018. Credit: Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Two North Carolina civil rights organizations have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the approval by state environmental regulators of a plan to produce “biogas” from vast waste lagoons at large industrial hog operations despite what they say is the likelihood that the project will increase air and water pollution.

In a complaint filed Tuesday by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Duplin County branch of the NAACP and the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign alleged that degraded “groundwater, surface water and air quality” would disproportionately harm predominantly Black and Latinx residents in violation of both Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and state environmental laws.

Duplin and Sampson Counties, where the four permitted swine facilities owned by Smithfield Foods Inc. are located, have the highest concentration of hog operations in the United States. A total of 9 million hogs are raised annually at 2,000 industrial hog operations “in the low-lying, flood-prone coastal plain of eastern North Carolina,” the complaint said. 

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Blakely Hildebrand, an SELC attorney, said in an interview that the state Department of Environmental Quality not only failed to consider increased pollution from the biogas plan but also ignored long-standing environmental issues related to “usage of this very harmful lagoon and sprayfield system,” in which untreated hog urine and feces are stored in giant, open lagoons and periodically sprayed into the air and onto nearby fields as fertilizer.

Zaynab Nasif, public information officer for the DEQ’s Division of Air Quality, said permit modifications were required at the four farms currently in the biogas program based on community concerns and an “environmental justice analysis.”

“DEQ is committed to the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all North Carolinians and has made great strides in making our decisions more inclusive, transparent and responsive to community members,” Nasif said.

The $500 million plan to produce biogas from methane gas in hog waste is a joint venture between Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy Inc., known as Align Renewable Natural Gas, or Align RNG, which began in 2018.

Align RNG requires hog operators to install anaerobic digesters that cover the open-air waste lagoons and capture the methane. The methane is then transferred into a network of pipelines, processed at a central facility and ultimately sold as natural gas for heating homes and other uses. 

Jim Monroe, vice president of corporate affairs for Smithfield Foods, said that the company is “perplexed by any effort to thwart sustainable farming practices to address the threat of climate change, a top priority for North Carolina and our nation.”

Monroe said that “turning methane from hog farms into clean energy” is a sustainable practice that will benefit North Carolina and the communities near Smithfield operations. The biogas plan, he said, is essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as part of the company’s goal to be carbon negative in all its operations by 2030.

“The approval of these permits followed a robust and unprecedented outreach process, including public engagement with environmental justice and other communities that went above and beyond what is required by an already robust process established by the DEQ,” Monroe said.   

Hildebrand said that while the DEQ’s own environmental justice analysis demonstrated the harmful impacts of the “outdated” lagoon and sprayfield system, the department did not address any of these issues in the four permits it has issued for the biogas plan. 

Hildebrand also said that the North Carolina Farm Act passed by the state legislature in July only added urgency to the complaint. 

The legislation requires the DEQ to create a fast-tracked permitting process in the next 12 months that would enable any existing hog farm to apply for the same “general permit” to become part of the biogas program. 

The farm act gives the DEQ 90 days to approve or reject an application. If no decision is reached within that time frame, a farm’s application would be immediately approved and remain valid for up to five years. 

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In the complaint, Hildebrand said that capping a hog waste lagoon with the anaerobic digesters produces more ammonia emissions than a conventional hog waste lagoon and increases the risk of water and air pollution with adverse human health impacts. 

Nasif, the DEQ spokesperson, said the four permit modifications issued in May for installation of the anaerobic digesters included additional nutrient and pathogen sampling of the digesters’ influent and effluent, as well as “best management practices,” including possible “vegetative buffers” along roadways. The permits, Nasif said, continue to prohibit off-site discharge of waste.

The first phase of the Align biogas project involves laying more than 30 miles of pipeline across Duplin and Sampson counties to transport biogas from the 19 individual hog farms currently participating to the central processing facility. Smithfield and Dominion also plan similar projects in Virginia, Utah, Arizona and California, according to the analysis by environmental groups. 

“We don’t want DEQ to be making the same mistakes with that general permit, as they have with these four permits with regard to addressing the impacts that these permits have on communities of color living nearby these facilities,” Hildebrand said, referring to the four Smithfield plants that have received permits so far. 

“We hope that EPA will accept the complaint,” she said, “investigate the matter and advise DEQ on how to comply with federal civil rights laws when it issues permits for biogas projects.” 

Sherri White-Williamson, policy director with the North Carolina Conservation Network, said the recent farm bill encourages more hog operations to turn to biogas harvesting for making profits without being required to invest in cleaner waste management technologies that already exist. 

“The new farm bill approved by the state general assembly further entrenches the same waste management practice, which is responsible for imperiling health of neighboring communities by polluting ground water and by adding harmful ammonia into the air,” White-Williamson said. 

She added there were concerns that the digesters added to hog operations under the Align RNG project will substantially increase ammonia concentration in the process of capturing methane from open air lagoons.

“That further exacerbates the air pollution that nearby communities are going to be exposed to, just to cite one example,” she said. 

A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences attributed 95 premature deaths in Sampson County and 83 premature deaths in Duplin County every year to the fine particulate air pollution caused, in part, by ammonia emissions from hog operations. 

White-Williamson said that the environmental justice problem in rural communities in eastern North Carolina is even worse, compounded by the lack of basic amenities such as broadband, which makes it difficult to even communicate with local authorities.

“So I just think that there is an opportunity for the Biden administration to do more work in rural communities and to understand what’s happening in rural communities,” she said, “and I don’t think that’s quite happening yet.” 

This post has been updated to include comment from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and Smithfield Foods Inc.