BLOG #4 – NC CASE STUDY BLOG:
So far in this blog series we have explored measures through which the public may vet new pipelines, and discussed legal options for addressing pipeline concerns, including recent court decisions that have impacted major pipeline projects. We explored the topic of “waste-to-biogas” as an up-and-coming means of energy production that big ag and energy businesses, including Smithfield Foods and major utilities like Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, are pushing as a “renewable” alternative. In this final installment we will take a closer look at waste-to-biogas in North Carolina, to better understand how this proposed solution can impact local communities and the landscape of environmental regulations as it is implemented.
In North Carolina, a state where the hog industry is deeply embedded, there are more pigs than people. The state has roughly 2,400 hog lagoons concentrated primarily in the southeastern region of the state. The detrimental impacts of animal agriculture on North Carolina communities are not a new conversation, as impacted communities and environmental groups have sought for nearly two decades to establish policy protections that would prevent the groundwater contamination, air emissions, and powerful odors that cause health problems for those living near the sprayfields. When Smithfield originally unveiled their plans for a major shift toward producing biogas on farms that contract with them, many hoped this was a sign that the company was finally taking responsibility for the damage caused by their waste management system. Instead, biogas is shaping up in North Carolina to be a diversion tactic for the industry to avoid real accountability, while contributing the minimum toward environmental goals.
North Carolina’s hog industry underwent a rapid transition from largely consisting of thriving, independently owned farms that raised pigs on pastures in the 1960s and 1970s, to a highly concentrated market in the 1980s and 1990s in which the surviving farmers had to sign contracts with integrators and raise hogs in CAFOs if they wanted to stay in the business. The proliferation of industrial scale hog operations, and the lagoons and sprayfields that are used to manage the waste, caused controversy in the state. Following catastrophic lagoon breeches and flooding from hurricanes in the 1990’s, North Carolina passed a moratorium on building new hog lagoons in 1997. This moratorium was extended every year until it was eventually made permanent in 2007. Under this law, in order for a hog farm to either expand its capacity or for a new hog farm to be built, it would have to meet specific criteria for utilizing environmentally superior technologies (ESTs). In other words, if you wanted to build a new CAFO hog farm, you would have to use new technology for waste management that prevents water contamination and air pollution, and eliminates noxious odors and particulate matter that cause community health problems.
While the moratorium was lauded as an achievement for the environmental community, it did nothing to address waste management practices on existing hog farms. This meant the roughly 2,400 lagoons and their accompanying sprayfields were allowed to continue in operation, without addressing pollution and emissions. Communities near hog farms – disproportionately low-income and communities of color – have therefore continued to suffer from exposure to pollutants for the last three decades. In 2019, a series of nuisance suits against Murphy Brown, a Smithfield subsidiary, gained national attention. The 500 plaintiffs, all neighbors of Smithfield hog CAFOs, complained of odors from spraying that were so strong they could not go outside some days. The noise of trucks, problems with flies, and odors from “dead boxes” (literally large boxes where dead hogs are stored until the company can remove them), were laid out in great detail.
There have been several pilot projects and pioneering farmers in the state who have sought to develop improved technologies for waste management. In 2000, the General Assembly established the “Smithfield Agreement” in collaboration with Smithfield and other major hog integrators in the state, and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), North Carolina’s major environmental regulation agency. This agreement required Smithfield and Premium Standard Farms to fund the development of environmentally superior technologies for waste management. Together they put up $17.1 million. Eighteen technologies were tested. Several technologies posed opportunities for environmental improvement. But after years of research, none of the technologies put forth were adopted, because of Smithfield’s “economic feasibility” criterion: they were all more expensive to operate than the existing lagoons and sprayfields.
In the process of piloting and developing alternative technologies, several farms in North Carolina have experimented with incorporating digesters on their farm to create waste-to-electricity systems. Similar to the waste-to-biogas process, these farms cover their lagoons to capture methane and other gasses. Unlike Smithfield’s proposed projects, these farms turn the gas into electricity that powers the farm or feeds back into the local grid. Some of these farms, including Loyd Ray Farms, which was one of the original test sites for technologies in the Smithfield Agreement, have utilized systems for de-nitrification and other processes to meet the mandated ESTs and reduce pollution. Therefore, when Smithfield introduced their plans to move toward waste-to-biogas, many were hopeful that the technology they developed would incorporate additional systems to meet the ESTs, as some of the pilot projects in North Carolina had demonstrated.
However, Smithfield’s plans will be modeled instead after their pilot project in Kinston, called Optima KV. Developed in partnership with Duke and Dominion Energy, the technology implemented in this system completely fails to address the concerns of communities who have called out for change for decades. Not only does producing biogas stand to cause an increase in intensity of several pollutants, as we discussed in our previous blog post, the Smithfield plans also do not attempt to meet the criteria for ESTs as established through the moratorium. What Smithfield’s plan does stand to do therefore, is offer a new blunt instrument for the industry to push back against existing and future environmental regulation.
The evidence of this is clear in the passing of the Farm Act of 2020. The moratorium and the accompanying ESTs have been challenged many times in the past, but never so successfully as in this new law. In this legislation, introduced in 2019, and buried deep within a bill involving sweet potato and hemp production, lawmakers included language that specifically exempted biogas digesters from the 2007 moratorium language and EST requirements. During the contentious public comment period as the General Assembly debated the bill, which stretched into 2020, concerns from community groups about the impact of the exemption for biogas digesters were drowned out by the controversy surrounding the bill’s primary topic – the legalization of hemp production in North Carolina. As a result of this new law, Smithfield can now legally proceed with asking hog farmers to invest millions of dollars in their operations for the sole purpose of producing biogas, bypassing the hard-won environmental requirements in the moratorium that have been in place for over a decade.
Arguably, the implementation of technologies that would meet ESTs would go far beyond waste-to-biogas digesters in curbing climate change, reducing harmful pollution, and ending harm to neighbors. But the major difference between waste-to-biogas digesters and waste systems that meet EST criteria is that biogas offers a new pathway to profit for integrators like Smithfield.
Thus, while it may seem encouraging to hear climate change commitments from multinational agribusiness giants, Smithfield’s waste-to-biogas plans in North Carolina are proving to be yet another strategy for the industry to sidestep real responsibility for decades of environmental pollution and harm to communities. As the challenge to address climate change will continue to drive the quest for technological solutions further in industrial animal production, we must ensure that corporations are held accountable for the harm these industries cause to animals, people, and the planet.