Environmental activists and rights groups are calling on President Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency and North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to ensure that stringent rules are in place to protect minority neighborhoods from hazardous biogas operations fast-tracked under the recently passed Farm Act of 2021.
The legislation was drafted to help speed completion of a $500 million biogas joint venture begun in 2018 between Smithfield Foods Inc., the country’s largest pork producer, and Dominion Energy Inc., known as Align Renewable Natural Gas, or Align RNG.
Align’s first phase involves laying more than 30 miles of pipeline across Duplin and Sampson counties in eastern North Carolina to pipe biogas from the 19 individual hog farms to date that have signed on to a central processing facility slated for construction. The facility would in turn sell the gas to heat homes and produce electricity. The hog farms would install large balloons known as digesters over their waste lagoons to capture the methane for processing into natural gas.
The legislation requires the DEQ to roll out a fast-tracked permitting process within the next 12 months that would enable any existing hog farm to apply for the same “general permit” to become part of the program. Of the total 2,083 permitted swine facilities in North Carolina, currently 24 have permitted animal digester systems installed.
Passed in July, the Act gives 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.
Critics argue the legislation drastically reduces the ability of affected communities to comment on permits, and further supports an obsolete waste management practice used by the hog farms called the lagoon and sprayfield system. The lagoon and sprayfield system stores untreated hog feces and urine in large, often unlined pits, and then sprays the liquid waste onto nearby cropland as fertilizer, resulting in harmful air and water pollution.
Two weeks ago, the 16-member Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board (EJEAB) discussed the general permit and how it affected the adjoining neighborhoods, home to mostly low-income Black and brown communities of color.
The advisory board was constituted in 2018 under Michael Regan, the then-administrator of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality Michael Regan, to provide input on environmental justice issues. Regan now serves as Biden’s EPA administrator.
Following its deliberations, the advisory board agreed to issue a formal statement asking the DEQ to ensure meaningful involvement of affected community members in the general permitting process. Upon final approval, the statement will be submitted to DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser, who assumed office in July.
The board will reconvene in September to take up the issue of biogas at a special meeting in the light of concerns about the impacts of the general permitting process on low-income communities of color provided for under the new legislation.
Dozens of environmental and civil rights organizations had asked the advisory board to intervene in an Aug. 17 letter, urging immediate action to protect communities against environmental injustices caused by the continued use of the lagoon and sprayfield system at industrial hog operations.
Renee Kramer, the DEQ’s Title VI and environmental justice coordinator, said the board will meet after Labor Day to take up the issue of biogas operations and their impact on nearby communities under the new legislative direction. Eastern North Carolina, where most of these hog farms are concentrated, is host to Black, Native American and Latino populations.
A Disproportionate Impact on Communities of Color
Research shows that minority neighborhoods in the state are disproportionately impacted by hog farm pollution and myriad health problems, including anemia, infant deaths, kidney disease and septicemia.
Environmental and civil rights activists argue the farm act undermines the efforts by the Biden administration to invest in environmental justice communities, which have historically borne the burden of displacements, adverse health impacts from the polluting industries and redlining.
The Biden administration has committed $21 billion under the bipartisan infrastructure bill to address the legacy pollution that for decades has harmed these communities.
Under the previous permitting requirements, capturing biogas from waste lagoons required an individual permit from DEQ, which took more time to process because of procedural requirements that included convening public hearings to solicit comments.
But the Farm Act provides “a fast time-frame and limits stakeholder engagement, which is a critical part of the permitting process,” said Blakely Hildebrand, an attorney with Southern Environmental Law Center.
Hildebrand said the public, including the community members who are affected, will now only have the opportunity to raise their concerns during the general permitting process. “DEQ is not required to notify the public or solicit public feedback on individual permit decisions once the general permit is final,” Hildebrand said.
In addition to creating a one-size-fits-all permit for a variety of existing hog farms, activists argue that the legislation restricts agency review of the proposed projects, weakens longstanding siting restrictions and removes tax incentives for the installation of environmentally superior waste management technology.
Donna Chavis, senior climate campaigner with the nonprofit Friends of the Earth, said a number of advocates are working to bring together communities to protest provisions in the legislation. The advocates want to target language in the bill that makes it easy for companies to get their permits and not have to share as much information with the community as they used to about the community impact from these operations.
Will Hendrick, the environmental justice advocate with North Carolina Conservation Network, said plans are in motion to put more public pressure on the DEQ to more closely check for excess pollution and contamination from biogas operations.
“Notwithstanding the protection eroded by the legislation, there are steps the state regulatory agencies can take,” Hendrick said. “For instance, DEQ can require monitoring of groundwater and surface water near these farms, none of which is currently required under the general permit to assess impact.”
He said the North Carolina general assembly has been withdrawing the regulatory requirements attached to swine operations over the years to the detriment of the neighboring minority communities, who don’t have the matching political clout.
“And this year one of the things that the industry successfully got the General Assembly to sign off on is that not only are they now allowed to modify waste management practice without meeting any of the criteria but they’re also getting the tax break for using the outdated lagoon and sprayfield technologies,” Hendrick added.
Doubling Down on Hog Lagoons
Align RNG requires farmers to invest in building the digesters, which are intended to cover and trap escaping methane to produce the biogas. Smithfield and Dominion say the farmers will be able to share long-term revenue from sales of the biogas. Four of the participating hog farms are owned by Smithfield.
In January 2021, the DEQ released a draft environmental justice report describing the racial and socio-economic profile of the communities within a one-mile radius of the Duplin county site proposed for the construction of the Align RNG biogas processing facility.
It concluded that the area displayed higher percentages of African-American and Hispanic residents compared to the state or the county, and in some instances also exhibited higher poverty levels, compared to state and county averages.
The DEQ’s Division of Air Quality has granted Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy one of the permits required to move forward with the project.
Additionally, the DEQ has issued four permits to Smithfield for its hog operations that allow the company’s commercial farms to install digesters alongside the lagoon and sprayfield systems.
In January 2021, the Southern Environmental Law Center challenged the four permits on behalf of two civil rights groups, the Environmental Justice Community Action Network and Cape Fear River Watch. The cases are pending.
Hildebrand, who is involved in those cases, said one of the chief concerns is that Smithfield Foods is doubling down on the cheapest, most harmful method to handle the billions of gallons of hog waste produced at its hog operations.
“We filed this case because the families living nearby and downstream from the hog operations have been dealing with untreated hog waste being sprayed close to their homes, noxious odors preventing them from enjoying their backyards and pollution seeping into their rivers and streams and the air that they breathe for decades,” Hildebrand said. “There are cleaner technologies out there that would begin to address some of these problems and Smithfield is refusing to do so.”
She added that the state is not disclosing which hog operators are part of the Grady Road Project, except for the four Smithfield-owned farms that applied for the permits. “We don’t know for instance where the pipeline connecting hog operations to the processing plant is going to be laid. And it impairs our ability to assess the impact on the communities near and around the project area,” she said.
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But some state lawmakers think otherwise. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican and Duplin County state representative, said the project was clean and environmentally sound. Dixon said he thought the Align RNG project represented an “incremental improvement in our…already established way of handling our waste.”
Environmental groups disagree, saying that to package Align’s biogas project as clean renewable energy is really far from the truth. “There is nothing green about hog waste. There’s nothing renewable about hog waste. And yet, industry is touting this biogas venture as this great green solution to all of the problems that has caused in our region of the state for decades,” said Donna Chavis, of Friends of the Earth.
North Carolina Conservation Network’s Will Hendrick said that the state and federal regulatory agencies can and should do more to protect communities harmed by those swine operations and the well-documented harm to surrounding communities they cause.
Hendrik said the DEQ, which is responsible for developing and issuing the general permit, is “a recipient of federal funding. And as a recipient of federal funding, there’s a non-discrimination obligation under Title VI of Civil Rights Act 1964.”
He said that the last time EPA scrutinized the impacts of swine facilities in North Carolina in 2017, it expressed grave concern that the permitted operations disproportionately harmed communities of color protected under Title VI.
“So EPA under Michael Regan, who is familiar with the plight of North Carolinians, could issue a finding of discrimination, which could withhold federal funding because of the state agency’s noncompliance with its nondiscrimination obligation,” Hendrick said.