‘This plan is a lie’: Biogas on hog farms could do more harm than good

North Carolina residents, researchers, and farmers say the rapidly growing industry distracts from a massive hog waste problem—and the public health risks that it causes.
Pigs in a feeding lot at a farm.
The hog waste problem cannot be equitably solved with biogas, researchers say. Deposit Photos

This article was originally featured on Southerly, in partnership with Scalawag

Sherri White-Williamson lives about three miles from a pork processing plant in Clinton, N.C. On a good day, the air smells fresh, tainted by a minor whiff of rotten egg and sewage. On a bad day, the odor from the plant is so strong, she has to keep her windows closed. 

The smell wafts into a local elementary school, nearby restaurants, churches, and the county history museum. Those who live and work in the area say they have to keep fans, candles, and air fresheners running at all hours to make the air tolerable. The problem is even worse for people living down the road in rural Sampson County, near large hog farms, where they must endure more potent odors and pollution coming from the lagoons filled with waste, and the systems that spray waste onto fields as fertilizer.

North Carolina is the second largest producer of pork in the country, and Sampson, Duplin, and Bladen counties house more than 40 percent of the state’s hog farms. According to census data, between a quarter to a third of the population in all three of these counties are Black; around a quarter of Duplin and Sampson residents are Latinx. About 42 percent of residents in neighboring Robeson County—the fourth largest hog producing county—are Native American. 

At farms using this system, hog waste— feces, urine, blood, and pus—drips through slats in the floors and into open pit lagoons, where it is mixed with water. The wastewater often sits uncovered, emitting noxious odors and gasses including methane, or is pumped out and sprayed as fertilizer on crop fields. There are approximately 4,000 lagoons in North Carolina, and the sludge—unusable waste left after the liquid has been sprayed—has almost filled many of these lagoons to capacity, experts say.

These are often in “communities that are low-income and minority,” White-Williamson said. 

The pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations disproportionately impacts rural Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities in North Carolina, including the Haliwa Saponi, Coharie, and Lumbee tribal nations. Studies have shown they’re more likely to live within three miles of large swine operations. A 2021 report also found that in Duplin County, 89 premature deaths per year can be attributed to emissions from hog operations.

Instead of replacing the current waste management system with cleaner and safer processes, as Smithfield has done in states like Missouri, the hog industry and energy utilities have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a different, more profitable waste management system: Biogas. Biological natural gas, often called renewable natural gas, is the result of a refining process in which anaerobic digesters—sealed, oxygen-free tanks designed to break down organic waste—collect methane from hog waste and convert it into natural gas for electricity. 

There are some immediate benefits to the process. By covering open pit lagoons, the systems reduce direct methane emissions and odors. But residents, researchers, and farmers say that this rapidly growing industry is mostly a distraction that doesn’t actually address North Carolina’s growing hog waste problem. 

White-Williamson has been fighting the hog industry’s waste management practices in Sampson County for decades. A year ago, she launched the Environmental Justice Community Action Network, a network of residents and organizations that educate and organize around hog farming and other local environmental hazards. She said widespread adoption of biogas systems will further cement the hog industry’s poor waste management practices in low-income communities of color. Others say it could actually increase water pollution in certain areas. Small-scale farmers are concerned that this newest strategy allows an industry where they see little of the profit to make more money, without actually alleviating their waste problems.

Still, the industry is expanding quickly: Smithfield Foods, a massive corporation that is the largest pork producer in the state, reports that in the next eight years, 90 percent of its hog farms will feed into biogas pipelines. After experimenting with smaller projects, Smithfield partnered with Dominion Energy to invest over $500 million in a major biogas project—one that will mean building large facilities and pipelines in rural eastern North Carolina.  

How biogas works

“This biogas plan is a lie,” said Larry Baldwin, Crystal Coast Waterkeeper of the International Waterkeeper Alliance, during an October 2021 public comment meeting held by the Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board. “This directed biogas plan, to me, is one of the more disgusting plans the industry has come up with in recent years. This is nothing but a Band-Aid that’s being applied to [the] lagoon-spray field system to perpetuate its use.”

A booming industry

With tens of billions of gallons of manure produced by hogs per year, waste is a massive problem. Biogas is becoming an increasingly popular way to address it: Last November, President Joe Biden’s administration pointed to biogas operations as a key way to reduce methane emissions in agriculture. 

Powerful institutions in North Carolina, including Duke University and Duke Energy, have been exploring the viability of biogas production since 2010, three years after the state mandated 12.5 percent of energy must come from renewable sources starting in 2021. This same law stated that by 2025, 0.2 percent of this renewable energy must come from swine waste-to-energy sources. That’s enough to power a little less than 122,000 North Carolina homes each year. 

Smithfield’s major project, Align Renewable Natural Gas (RNG), would install anaerobic digesters on farms in Virginia, Utah, and North Carolina, connecting them via pipeline systems to processing plants for “cleaning” and conversion of waste gasses into usable methane. From there, the gas is moved through existing natural gas infrastructure.

The North Carolina section, called the Grady Road project, would comprise more than 30 miles of pipelines—the exact location of which Smithfield has not shared—that connect 19 hog farms in Duplin and Sampson Counties to a natural gas processing plant at the intersection of Highway 24 and I-40, between Warsaw and Turkey. 

Smithfield says the Align project is expected to capture about 85,000 tons of methane each year and will produce enough energy to power 700,000 homes over 20 years. 

“The Align RNG initiative provides new income potential to North Carolina family farmers by turning one of their biggest costs—hog manure—into a new revenue source,” Kraig Westerbeek, senior director of Smithfield Renewables and hog production environmental affairs, wrote in an email. “In addition to directly benefiting local farmers, these projects benefit the surrounding community by creating jobs, bolstering local tax bases, and driving greater economic development.”

However, the Grady Road Project would only create 2.5 permanent jobs, and any jobs associated with building the digesters or pipelines are temporary, according to NC Policy Watch. Smithfield has stated local farmers will be compensated through long-term contracts. But participating farmers must pay for their own digester systems, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The four farms that currently have permits for the project are corporate farms rather than small family operations; experts and residents believe given the tentative location of the pipelines, the rest will be large operations as well. The project was slated to be complete early this year; Smithfield did not respond to requests for comment about an updated timeline. 

“This project will not expand hog farming, but it will make it more sustainable,” Westerbeek said. The company maintains that the project will lead to cleaner air for communities around the farms. 

Duke Energy, which has multiple biogas projects in the works, touts similar benefits. “Historically you’ve had these lagoons that were uncovered that the methane was escaping straight to the environment,” said Duke Energy spokesperson Randy Wheeless. “But once you cover those lagoons and are capturing the methane, you’re also eliminating that smell as well. And I think environmentally that’s a positive.” 

Residents say the industry is hiding behind promises of reduced emissions and bad odors, because biogas systems don’t incentivize companies to stop industrial hog farming or find a less intrusive waste management system. Some worry biogas will create more demand for hog farming, since it is marketed as a “renewable” energy source. 

At a public listening session in October 2021, Duplin County NAACP president Robert O. Moore said that Smithfield promised 20 years ago to install cleaner technology to deal with hog waste. (The company researched other “environmentally superior” technologies but never implemented them.)

“The corporation has refused to implement any technology to clean up the water, citing the cost of doing so was too expensive,” Moore said. “Yet the cost of this biogas project rivals the costs that would have been to implement cleaner and safer technology to ensure the safety of those living near these operations.” 

Still, the technology is gaining traction, with support from North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper. Last year Cooper signed the 2021 North Carolina Farm Act into law; state regulators will create a “one-size-fits-all” general permit for biogas that would fast-track the permitting process for any farm in the state looking to add an anaerobic digester to their lagoons.

“Other than the four permits that have already been issued, every other facility connected to this Grady Road Project is going to be authorized under this general permit that’s being developed right now,” said Will Hendrick, environmental justice policy deputy director for NC Conservation Network, at a March community meeting in Sampson County. “So too will the next biogas project in the next community. And the next one after that.” 

Another form of environmental injustice

Living near a hog farm operation is linked to higher rates of kidney disease, certain cancers, asthma, and anemia. The misted feces from spray fields contain pathogens, antibiotics, and nitrates that can lead to antibiotic resistance and weaken the immune system, increasing likelihood of death from kidney failure, tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases. 

Since many rural residents get their water from wells, there’s a constant fear of hog waste seeping into groundwater, high concentrations of which can lead to ammonia poisoning as well as premature infant mortality or blue baby syndrome

Jeff Anstead, a citizen of the Haliwa Saponi Tribe, whose members mostly live in Warren and Halifax Counties, said odors from a nearby hog farm are affecting Indigenous cultural practices, too. After visiting the Coharie tribe in Sampson County for their annual pow wow, Anstead said that “when the sun went down and dew started to fall, the hog farm was located directly behind them … [the smell] was almost unbearable.”

Twenty-five years ago, because of reports of pollution from hog waste, the state put a moratorium on building new concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and expanding existing ones. In 2007, the state passed legislation that permanently banned the construction or expansion of lagoon and sprayfield systems, requiring any new or expanding farms to meet five strict environmental standards for waste management. Operations built before the moratorium were not required to do so . And biogas does not address these revised environmental standards.

The problem is likely to get worse. As the climate changes, extreme rainfall and storms are becoming more intense and frequent in North Carolina. When a lagoon leaks or breaches during a heavy rainfall event—which happened during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018—waste can travel into nearby waterways, causing ecological damage and fish kills due to excess nutrients in the waste, including phosphorus.

Communities trying to hold the agriculture industry accountable for pollution from hog waste lagoons and spray fields have had major victories in recent years. Duplin County residents won their 2018 lawsuit against Smithfield for offensive odors, pollution, and noise that made living nearby unbearable. But the Farm Act of 2018 made it nearly impossible for residents near hog operations to sue the swine industry in the future. 

Residents say developers aren’t being transparent about the Grady Road biogas project, the permitting process, and the locations of participating farms. A year ago, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approved water quality permit modifications that allows four of the 19 farms on the Grady Road Project to set up their anaerobic digestion systems. In September, The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) on behalf of the Duplin County NAACP and the NC Poor People’s Campaign, filed a complaint with the EPA claiming DEQ violated the Civil Rights Act by ignoring the disproportionate impacts of hog farms and biogas facilities on communities of color

Early this year, a judge ruled in Smithfield’s favor, upholding the permits after EJCAN, Cape Fear River Watch, and SELC challenged the four existing permits. However, the EPA agreed to investigate whether state regulators discriminated against communities of color when they approved those permits. 

Researchers and organizers are concerned biogas operations could cause even more pollution. While covering lagoons is better than leaving them uncovered in terms of methane emissions, doing so can cause the amount of toxic ammonia in lagoon wastewater to increase, according to co-director of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, Ryke Longest. In an open waste lagoon, ammonia escapes into the atmosphere. With a covered lagoon, ammonia is trapped and the amount in liquid waste increases by up to 3.5 times.

“I haven’t seen them show any studies or any evidence to prove that what they say is true about the reduction of pollution that they assert is going on here,” Longest said. 

The biogas processing plant may also shift some of the air pollution and emissions to other nearby communities. In documents submitted to state air quality regulators in 2020, Smithfield predicted the Grady Road central gas processing plant will produce more than 60 tons of carbon emissions per year.

“It’s very disturbing, because biogas is not a clean renewable energy by any means,” said Donna Chavis, senior climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth and citizen of the Lumbee Tribe. 

Big ag takes the profits

Tom Butler and his brother started their hog farm in Lillington, N.C., in 1995, after inheriting 200 acres of land from their parents. Five years later, they found out the odor from their two open pit waste lagoons and the feces-filled mists they used to fertilize their fields were disrupting neighbors’ lives. 

Going forward, they wanted to ensure Butler Farms did as little environmental harm as possible. “We made a vow between ourselves that we would try to do something to have an impact [on the industry],” Butler said. 

The brothers started by inviting family, neighbors, and EPA representatives to an open meeting—both to apologize, and to assure them that a solution to the waste and odor problems was on its way. Ten years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, Butler Farms installed an anaerobic digestion system in hopes of reducing its methane emissions, runoff, and odor. The system generates energy that he sells back to local energy providers.

Since the advent of CAFOs and their impact on pricing because of their ability to quickly produce pork in bulk, hog farming is no longer a profitable profession for small farmers like Butler. Often, they make just enough to keep their operation functioning and to pay their bank statement every few weeks. Butler said when he first started, he was $600,000 in debt. He said he has not made a dent in it—most of his money goes back into the farm or to the integrators— companies like Prestage Farms, who Butler contracts with—to buy more hogs, food, and supplies. The little additional money he makes selling biogas energy back to his local electric cooperative goes right back into the farm as well.

“Our [hog farm] contract was written so that we would never make any profit at all. Most growers are like me, they’re in debt,” said Butler. “And they do not want to say anything to make the integrator mad, because the integrator could cut their contract.” 

Integrators own almost every part of the system except for the waste, which farmers must deal with. After over 25 years of raising hogs, Butler Farms has accumulated about 12 million gallons of sludge; they produce about 10,000 gallons of waste per day. The industry has done nothing to help him address the waste overflow, and he says that biogas attempts to put a Band-Aid on what will be a massive sludge containment issue in the state.

“We do not know what their motives are,” Butler said. “They don’t share any information with us. They don’t share any goals. But we know that they’re going to do whatever costs the least.”

Nine years after setting up his own waste-to-energy system, Butler—who is now 80 years old and runs the operation with his son—is concerned with Smithfield’s recent biogas investment, saying it greenwashes the issue of hog waste management in the state by falsely claiming to be environmentally safer. 

“It’s just a way for [the industry] to kind of pan the gold out of your water, and then they leave you with the waste,” Butler said. “I love what I do. I love my industry. But I don’t think we’re doing enough for the environmental part. And they know that but they will not admit it. They don’t care anything about their growers. They care about profit.”

Cameron Oglesby is an environmental justice storyteller, freelance journalist, and public policy graduate student based in Durham, N.C.

This story was supported by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, and is part of their POWER project.