EPA opens civil rights probe into NC DEQ’s approval of hog farm biogas permits

·3 min read

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether North Carolina environmental regulators’ approval of systems capturing gas from waste at four hog farms violated the civil rights of people living in Duplin and Sampson counties.

In March 2021, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality approved water quality permit modifications at four Eastern North Carolina hog farms. At three of the farms, a new waste pit would be dug and covered with an anaerobic digester, effectively a large tarp that is welded together at the seams. As methane and other gases waft from the lagoon, they are captured in the digester and sent to a nearby processing facility. The fourth farm requested a permit to cover an existing pit.

A complaint filed in September by the Southern Environmental Law Center alleged that DEQ’s approval of the permits contained “inadequate” protections for nearby communities, which were disproportionately made up of Black, Hispanic or impoverished people. By failing to protect those communities, SELC argued, DEQ was violating civil rights laws that require any agency receiving federal funding to provide equal protections for all people.

SELC’s complaint was filed on behalf of the Duplin County Chapter of the N.C. NAACP and the N.C. Poor People’s Campaign.

In a written statement, Blakely Hildebrand, an SELC attorney, said, “We hope that DEQ can quickly correct its course and protect communities near industrial hog operations as it develops a new general permit for hog operations that produce biogas.”

The EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office will investigate whether DEQ’s approvals discriminated against residents on the basis of race or national origin, whether DEQ’s public participation policy complies with civil rights laws and EPA nondiscrimination policies. In a letter to Hildebrand, Lilian Dorka, director of the EPA’s office, made clear that moving forward with the investigation does not constitute a decision about the merits of the allegations.

Biogas is popular with pork producers, who argue that it cuts down on methane emissions from their waste pits while also turning the captured gas into a source of revenue for farmers. But nearby community members and environmental advocates argue that using waste pits to capture gases perpetuates a system where waste is stored in lagoons before being sprayed onto nearby fields, damaging air quality and with runoff impacting water quality.

The farms receiving permit modifications were among 19 operations set to provide methane to an Align RNG facility in Turkey, North Carolina, near the Sampson-Duplin county line. Align is a partnership between Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy, where Smithfield-owned farms will provide methane that Dominion will turn into natural gas for sale.

Sharon Martin, a DEQ spokeswoman, said in a written statement, “We are reviewing the EPA letter. DEQ is committed to the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all North Carolinians and we have given significant priority to compliance with Title VI requirements, particularly with regard to animal waste permitting.”

Smithfield Foods declined to comment because it is not a party to the investigation.

A DEQ environmental justice analysis of the Duplin and Sampson county areas around the four farms found that they had higher proportions of Black, Hispanic and impoverished people than North Carolina state averages and that there were at least three other animal operations within a one-mile radius.

But, the complaint alleged, that environmental justice review was “merely a paper exercise” and did not result in meaningful permit modifications.

In a written statement, William Barber III of the N.C. Poor People’s Campaign said, “EPA’s decision to investigate the disproportionate impacts of these permits on North Carolina’s poor and communities of color is crucial in maintaining robust commitments to environmental justice in our state. Real solutions to our climate crisis must serve all communities, including the most vulnerable.”

DEQ is in the process of writing a general permit for biogas operations at existing hog farms, as required in the Farm Act of 2021.

This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.

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