A provision of the N.C. Farm Act of 2021 related to the permitting of hog farm digesters that appeared to be a procedural change may have long-term consequences for the industry, farming communities and their neighbors.
The legislation allows the Environmental Management Commission, a division of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, to develop a general permit that allows hog farmers to build and operate farm digesters. In the past, individual permits were required.
Under the act, environmental regulators are required to decide on general permit applications within 90 days, or the permit is automatically considered approved. Permits are valid for five years.
Each of the 27 Senate Republicans present for the vote were in favor of Senate Bill 605, which Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law in early July. Democrats split over the ramifications of the provision with eight in favor and 11 opposed.
“This bill is a common-sense approach to maintaining a safe, economical, sustainable supply of food in North Carolina,” said Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County, according to a statement from Speaker Tim Moore. Duplin is the top hog-producing county in North Carolina.
The waste is flushed from the barns and into lagoons that release greenhouse gases, including methane, into the atmosphere. Once waste lagoons are full, the waste is sprayed on agricultural fields as fertilizer. Black families are more than 1.5 times more likely to live within 3 miles of an industrial hog operation, exposing them to issues ranging from odors to adverse health effects, according to a report from the University of North Carolina.
Balancing environmental concerns
State Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, opposed the bill, citing the general permit for biogas digesters as a key concern.
“I believe there’s a real environmental justice component to the North Carolina Farm Act,” he said.
“Many Black and brown communities adjacent to hog facilities are heavily affected by odor, runoff and contamination. Unfortunately, the creation of a general grant permit will limit these communities’ voices (and) that could potentially lead to more toxins and contaminants from hog waste into these very communities.
Farm digesters can transform lagoons of pig manure into power, trapping methane gas and sending it to a processing plant to be converted into natural gas.
A report from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University acknowledges the potential for digesters to be a solution to a massive environmental problem but warns that it’s “not a perfect solution” and could incentivize creating, not reducing, waste.
The process also offers benefits such as limiting odors, reducing overflow and reducing the reliance on fossil fuels, according to the report.
Leaders in the state’s pork industry support the use of digesters on hog farms. In an op-ed published in the Fayetteville Observer in May, Roy Lee Lindsey, CEO at the N.C. Pork Council, wrote, “I simply don’t understand the vocal opposition to farmers who are working to better manage their farms by capturing biogas and converting it to renewable natural gas.”
Chaudhuri disagrees, adding, “I believe a one-size-fits approach limits public participation, especially given the impact such biogas digesters have on Black and brown communities.”
A loss of community input
The objection is not to the digesters per se. Instead, opponents expressed concerns that the permitting process reduces opportunities for communities living near hog farms to weigh in on the construction and operation of digesters.
“I would have preferred a permit process that kept individual reviews in place while making sure such permits are completed in a reasonable and timely manner,” Chaudhuri says.
“A case-by-case review would also allow for community participation.”
Environmental groups raised concerns that transitioning from individual permits to a general permit could have significant environmental repercussions.
A coalition that included Cape Fear Riverwatch, Clean Air Carolina, the Environmental Justice Community Action Network and the N.C. Conservation Network co-signed a statement urging Gov. Cooper to veto the bill.
The statement read, in part, “Our organizations strongly urge you to veto Senate Bill 605, the Farm Act of 2021, in light of provisions in Section 11 that would create a one-size-fits-all, fast-tracked permit for a variety of ‘digester’ technologies, limit community input and agency review of proposed projects, weaken long-standing siting restrictions and remove tax incentives for the installation of environmentally superior waste management technology. … Farm digesters can vary significantly in design and effectiveness, underscoring why a general permit is an inappropriate vehicle to assess and mitigate related harms.”
The nonprofit environmental group Friends of the Earth also criticized Gov. Cooper for signing the bill, singling out the biogas digester provision.
“In signing the Farm Act, Gov. Cooper and our elected officials in North Carolina have bowed to corporate pressure and disregarded the communities on the front line of these outdated and environmentally disastrous operations,” senior climate campaigner Donna Chavis said in a statement. “It is unacceptable that a leader who claims to value our voices chose to sell us out to the highest bidder.”
Sen. Milton F. “Toby” Fitch Jr. was among the Democrats who voted in favor of the N.C. Farm Act. He called the general permit for digesters “imperfect” but said it would offer a better path for hog farmers who often experienced long wait times and lack of responsiveness from NCDEQ to their applications to individual permits.
“The hog industry has grown and become the dominant cash crop in North Carolina,” Fitch said. “There are so many hogs that something had to be done, and I looked to science to give us some relief.”
Fitch also hopes the general permit could provide relief to those living near industrial hog farms who have been waiting decades for a solution — but he’s willing to revise the provision if he’s proved wrong.
“Environmentally and otherwise, the people who live beside (hog farms) have had no relief for 40 years (and) at some point in time, we have to stop the fighting and find a solution,” he said.
“No bill is perfect; it’s always a work in progress. You never get it right. You have to get it as close to right as you possibly can. If (the general permit) is not a reprieve, I’ll be one of the first ones standing in line trying to find another way to do it.”