Two North Carolina civil rights organizations have called on the United States Environmental Protection Agency to investigate state environmental regulators’ approval of a plan to produce ” biogas’ from vast waste lagoons on large industrial pig farms, despite what they say is the likelihood of the project increasing. air and water pollution.
In a complaint filed Tuesday by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Duplin County branch of the NAACP and the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign alleged that the degradation of “the quality of groundwater, surface water and air Would disproportionately harm predominantly black and Latin residents in violation of both Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and state environmental laws.
Duplin and Sampson counties, where the four licensed hog facilities owned by Smithfield Foods Inc. are located, have the highest concentration of hog operations in the United States. A total of 9 million pigs are raised each year on 2,000 industrial hog farms “in the low-lying, flood-prone coastal plain of eastern North Carolina,” the complaint said.
Blakely Hildebrand, an attorney for SELC, said in an interview that the State Department of Environmental Quality not only failed to account for the increase in pollution from the biogas plan, but also had ignored the long-standing environmental problems associated with “the use of this very harmful lagoon and field spray system,” in which untreated pig urine and droppings are stored in giant, open lagoons and periodically sprayed in the air and on neighboring fields as fertilizer The DEQ did not respond to a request for comment.
The $ 500 million plan to produce biogas from methane in pork waste is a joint venture between Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy Inc., known as Align Renewable Natural Gas, or Align RNG, which began in 2018. Neither company responded to requests for comment.
Align RNG requires hog operators to install digesters that cover lagoons with open-air waste and capture methane. The methane is then transferred through a pipeline system, processed at a central facility, and ultimately sold as natural gas for home heating and other uses.
Hildebrand said that although the DEQ’s own environmental justice analysis demonstrated the harmful impacts of the “outdated” lagoon and spray field system, the ministry did not address any of these issues in the permits it issued. for the biogas plan.
Hildebrand also said the North Carolina Farm Act passed by the state legislature in July only added to the urgency of the complaint.
The legislation requires the DEQ to create an expedited licensing process over the next 12 months that would allow any existing hog farm to apply for the same “general license” to be part of the biogas program.
The agricultural law gives the DEQ 90 days to approve or reject an application. If no decision is taken within this timeframe, a farm’s application would be immediately approved and would remain valid for up to five years.
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In the complaint, Hildebrand said that covering a pork waste lagoon with “anaerobic digesters” produces more ammonia emissions than a conventional pork waste lagoon and increases the risk of pollution from the water and air with adverse effects on human health.
The first phase of the Align biogas project involves laying more than 30 miles of pipeline through Duplin and Sampson counties to transport biogas from the 19 individual hog farms currently participating in the central processing facility. Smithfield and Dominion are also planning similar projects in Virginia, Utah, Arizona and California, according to analysis from environmental groups.
“We don’t want DEQ to make the same mistakes with this general permit as they did with these four permits in terms of the impacts these permits have on the communities of color living near these facilities,” said Hildebrand said, referring to the four factories in Smithfield that have received permits so far.
“We hope the EPA will accept the complaint,” she said, “will investigate the matter and advise DEQ on how to comply with federal civil rights laws when issuing permits for construction projects. biogas “.
Sherri White-Williamson, policy director for the North Carolina Conservation Network, said the recent farm bill encouraged more hog farms to turn to biogas harvesting for profit without having to invest in technology. waste management solutions that already exist.
“The new agricultural bill approved by the state’s general assembly further strengthens the same practice of waste management, which is responsible for endangering the health of neighboring communities by polluting groundwater and adding water. harmful ammonia in the air, ”White-Williamson said.
She added that there were concerns that the digesters added to hog farms as part of the Align RNG project could significantly increase the concentration of ammonia in the process of capturing methane from open-pit lagoons.
“This further exacerbates the air pollution that neighboring communities will be exposed to, to name just one example,” she said.
A recent National Academy of Sciences study attributed 95 premature deaths in Sampson County and 83 premature deaths in Duplin County each year to fine particulate air pollution caused, in part, by ammonia emissions from airframes. pig farms.
White-Williamson said the environmental justice problem in rural communities in eastern North Carolina is even worse, compounded by the lack of basic amenities such as broadband, making it difficult to communicate with residents. local authorities.
“So I just think there’s an opportunity for the Biden administration to do more work in rural communities and understand what’s going on in rural communities,” she said, “and I don’t don’t think that’s happening again. ”