NC Senate bill would give blanket approval to biogas projects at state hog farms

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A N.C. Senate Committee on Tuesday approved a bill that would grant blanket permission to the state’s hog farmers to begin harvesting and selling methane gas from hog waste lagoons — a move popular with farmers that environmentalists say would further contaminate communities with large Black and Hispanic populations.

The Senate Agricultural, Environment and Energy Committee approved the Farm Act of 2021, which would require the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to issue a blanket permit for “biogas digesters” at existing hog farms.

Biogas digesters are essentially large balloons that cover hog waste ponds and capture the escaping methane, which is then piped to gas production plants, where it is refined for sale as natural gas.

Hog farmers and industry representatives argue that biogas projects help curb methane pollution from hog farms while turning waste into an additional revenue stream. But environmentalists and some community members have opposed the biogas projects, saying they effectively mean that communities of color would continue to suffer disproportionate air and water quality impacts from the state’s hog production.

“Having a one-size-fits-all approach here is just entirely inappropriate, not to mention that it limits public participation,” Blakely Hildebrand, a Southern Environmental Law Center attorney, told The News & Observer. Hildebrand said different farms have unique characteristics like their lagoons’ proximity to nearby waterways or the number of hogs.

Angie Maier, the N.C. Pork Council’s director of government affairs and sustainability, defended the general permit for biogas digesters, arguing that the conditions would be nearly identical to the general permits that hog farms already operate under.

Over the last decade, Maier added, DEQ has approved biodigesters on 24 farms.

“Curiously, this fierce opposition to this issue didn’t happen when it was family-owned farms obtaining these permits,” Maier said. “It only happened after Smithfield company-owned farms applied for permits.”

Janet Melvin, a resident of Roseboro in Sampson County, spoke against the bill during Tuesday’s meeting. Most of Sampson County’s hog farms are on the southern end of the county, Melvin said, in communities with high proportions of Black and Hispanic people.

Last year, Melvin and others opposed the now-approved Grady Road project that saw Align RNG, a partnership between Dominion and Smithfield Foods, seek air permits for a biogas processing facility. DEQ approved an air permit for the processing facility in January. Under existing rules, individual farms also need to seek modifications to their existing swine permits.

The state environmental department has approved permit modifications at four of the 19 farms associated with Align’s Grady Road project, which will see methane piped from the farms to a processing facility where it will be transformed into natural gas. A DEQ environmental justice review found that each of those farms have at least three other animal operations within a one-mile radius and are all located in census tracts that have higher proportions of Black, Hispanic and impoverished people than North Carolina state averages.

“Our very own senator, Brent Jackson, wants to make sure that we the people have little say in the development of the biogas facilities,” Melvin said. “Let me be clear: I am not against hog farmers or hogs. I am against secrecy and lack of transparency.”

Jackson, a Sampson County Republican who is a staunch supporter of industrial agricultural operations in North Carolina, said that a general permit for biogas digesters is similar to the general permits that hog and chicken farms in North Carolina already operate under.

“I think the (an)aerobic digesters is a step in the right direction,” Jackson said Tuesday. “There is a lot of folks that really just want these operations gone. That’s their main goal, is these operations just disappear.”

Jackson is one of the Farm Act’s primary sponsors.

Last week, the Southern Environmental Law Center challenged DEQ’s decision to approve the four permit modifications at swine farms. On behalf of Cape Fear River Watch and the Environmental Justice Community Action Network, SELC attorneys filed a petition in the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings arguing that DEQ failed to consider alternatives that would result in less contamination of nearby waterways and also failed to consider the cumulative effects of hog operations on water quality.

“These permits would lock in the lagoon and spray field system which causes these harms, and DEQ failed to require that Smithfield install cleaner technology, which the law requires,” Hildebrand said.

Hildebrand pointed to water quality concerns from lagoons and spray fields, as well as concerns about air quality and odors that have been raised during federal nuisance lawsuits against Murphy-Brown. State laws passed in 2017 and 2018 limit the awards neighbors of hog farms could receive in any future lawsuits, although environmental groups have challenged those portions of the Farm Acts of 2017 and 2018.

During a confirmation hearing last week, Dionne Delli-Gatti, Gov Roy Cooper’s nominee for secretary of DEQ, responded to a question about the biogas general permit by declining to take a stance. Instead, Delli-Gatti said, her department would provide technical assistance to lawmakers who asked for it, but noted that any policy choice would be up to the General Assembly.

The Farm Act must still pass through the Senate Judiciary and Senate Rules committees before returning to the whole body for a vote.

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