North Carolina’s biogas problem is only getting worse

N.C. released a general biogas permit despite environmental justice concerns. The permit allows farms to bypass individual water quality review and public hearing processes when installing an anaerobic digester.
Researchers are concerned the legislature’s well-documented, long-standing relationship with the swine industry is allowing lenient policies that will further harm communities already suffering health and environmental impacts from industrial hog farming. Deposit Photos

This article was originally featured on Southerly.

This story is the second in a series about biogas development in eastern North Carolina. Read the first here.

Almost every aspect of the hog farming industry has a footprint in Sampson County, N.C. Growers contracted with Smithfield Foods are required to use feed processed and stored in Turkey. The floor slats used in hog houses—open grates that hog feces, urine, and other fluids flow through—are produced by several facilities across the county. And in the heart of Clinton is the Smithfield Foods processing plant, where hogs are trucked in, killed, and processed. 

On a sunny day in late April, Sherri White-Williamson, director of the Environmental Justice Community Action Network (EJCAN), drove Duke University students around Sampson County to see these impacts: Sign after sign lining the roads marking entrances to family farms; swaths of trees hiding massive concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and waste lagoons; open fields where machines spray brown liquid—fertilizer made from hog waste—on crops. 

White-Williamson has focused lately on educating the public about biogas, an energy production method that caps open waste lagoons and captures methane to turn into natural gas. The swine industry—and increasingly state and federal politicians—says biogas is a boon to communities and the environment because it reduces the amount of methane seeping into the atmosphere from hog waste lagoons.

However, community organizers, residents, and researchers are concerned the North Carolina legislature’s well-documented, long-standing relationship with the swine industry is allowing lenient policies that will further harm communities already suffering health and environmental impacts from industrial hog farming. 

On July 1, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ)—the state’s environmental regulator—issued general biogas permits for swine, cattle, and wet poultry operations, allowing them to bypass individual water quality review and public hearing processes when installing an anaerobic digester on their lagoons. The permits are in effect until Sept. 2024.

“We’re disappointed that the general permit is not more protective of the communities that EJCAN works with, but we will continue to advocate on behalf of the citizens who remain concerned about the possibility of contamination and exposure to high levels of pollutants,” White-Williamson said.

The permits reduce communities’ ability to weigh in on individual projects and will fast-track biogas operations in the state. Environmental groups heavily opposed the draft released in February. 

The state held four public comment sessions in April. Will Hendrick, environmental justice policy deputy director for the North Carolina Conservation Network, said they were dominated by industry representatives. They also fell on days when extreme weather, including tornado risks, prevented some residents from attending.

“I think that [low attendance], in part, is a reflection of the lack of trust that the DEQ is going to listen to community members,” he said.

Southerly asked DEQ about environmental justice implications of the permits. Josh Kastrinsky, public information officer for the Division of Energy, Mineral, and Land Resources, responded via email, citing language from the agency’s website.

“DEQ is committed to the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies,” he said. 

The effects of biogas are still unclear: Research shows that when a lagoon is capped, potentially harmful ammonia accumulates in quantities about 3.5 times higher than in an uncapped lagoon. And in some cases, while one lagoon is covered, a second that collects overflow remains open continuing to emit methane, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and other greenhouse gasses. 

In short, the process doesn’t necessarily address the waste problem that residents—mostly low-income and Black—have dealt with for decades.

A history of mistrust

About a year ago, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, signed the North Carolina Farm Act of 2021 into law. It required NCDEQ to develop the general biogas permits (also called “digester general permits”). 

According to NC Policy Watch, the farm bill limits the DEQ’s ability to conduct necessary groundwater monitoring, phosphorus loss monitoring, or annual public reporting around these facilities. The recently released biogas general permit also allows any new lagoons associated with the directed biogas system to set up closer to residential properties—approximately “100 feet from any well” and “200 feet from any property not owned by the Permittee” compared to the original 500 feet from any well and 1,500 from an occupied dwelling in the 1995 Swine Farm Siting Act

“We worked very hard in the legislature last year to ensure additional protections for the environment and for communities as a part of this Farm Bill,” said Blakely Hildebrand, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “And the legislature, which is in the pockets of the hog industry, ignored our concerns and ignored the concerns of community members.”

Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, also criticized the general permit, calling it “woefully inadequate” and saying it fails to assure compliance with water quality protections required under North Carolina law.

Hendrick said the general permits would exempt hog operations installing biogas systems from meeting five environmental standards in place since 2007. The permit released by DEQ does not make direct reference to these five environmental performance standards.

The hog industry produces about $10 billion in annual revenue for the state and there is a long history of hog farmers and industry beneficiaries holding seats in the state legislature. This dynamic has allowed the industry to grow with relatively lax regulatory oversight and has placed residents in a difficult position, having to choose between a major economic driver and the health of their communities. Farmers, too, struggle to make a profit or find themselves in debt to major companies they contract with.

“Whenever the community stands up and fights back, what we’ve seen over the 20 years, is that the legislators would then pass a bill to try to shut down the pushback from communities,” said Naeema Muhammad, senior advisor for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.

The DEQ has a history of approving permits despite community opposition. The most recent case is with four water quality permits for the Align RNG biogas project, operated by Smithfield and Dominion Energy. It would connect 19 hog farms to pipelines and a central processing plant in Turkey. 

SELC contested the four permits on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch and EJCAN, White-Williamson’s organization. In November 2021, a judge ruled to keep the permits as issued, claiming that the two missing provisions of the state’s water quality guidelines didn’t apply to swine operations. 

Hildebrand said that this ruling was surprising and has significant ramifications for community members’ ability to contest water permits moving forward. The EPA is now investigating whether the individual permits are a violation of civil rights. They must issue preliminary findings by July 13. According to White-Williamson, developers of the Align RNG project—which has been on hold during the investigation—could drop their previous permits and use the general one, an action that may affect the EPA’s findings.

Hendrick said community organizers and residents are asking for an assessment of cumulative impacts that the general permit may cause, and are interested in other technologies that may reduce waste and pollution.

“No community members are saying, ‘shut down your farm,’” Hendrick said. “[They’re] just trying to make sure that what farmers are doing on their land doesn’t harm them or their families.”