2021 Farm Act Eases Methane Biogas Permitting

The North Carolina Senate and House recently passed the Farm Act of 2021 (SB605) which contained a provision granting blanket permission for the state’s hog farmers to begin harvesting and selling methane gas (biogas) from hog waste lagoons. The individual process for doing this had already started, but the permitting process was slow.

All of this may sound familiar. Last year, judges with 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, affirmed a lower court ruling that holds Murphy-Brown, LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, Inc., liable for violating the right of neighbors of the former hog farm to enjoy their property. Jurors in that 2018 District Court case awarded each of the property owners $75,000 in compensatory damages and another $2.5 million collectively in punitive damages. Then Smithfield Foods announced it had resolved the remaining 20 to 25 separate lawsuits – there were 500 complaints in all, filed by North Carolinians, mostly people of color. Smithfield Foods is owned by Hong Kong-based WH Group Limited.

These cases brought to the forefront environmental justice matters in eastern North Carolina’s rural communities that have for years been fighting for the industrial hog farming industry to get away from the lagoon and sprayfield system. “We certainly hope that the pretty clear decision of the judges sends a message to the industry that they need to change their practices,” said Sherri-White-Williamson, the North Carolina Conservation Network’s environmental justice policy director. “Environmental justice is very much about not just black and brown communities, but low-income communities that have something in common- politically they are not powerful.”

After this stunning victory for the plaintiffs did Smithfield undertake efforts to process hog waste in ways that would protect the environment and neighboring communities? No! Instead, Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy have deployed a full-court press on lawmakers and state regulators to build expansive new biogas systems, which would be located mostly in communities of color and low-income residents.

These biogas systems use covered waste lagoons to capture some of the farm’s methane. That gas is then used by utilities to burn for electricity. Significantly, the method for doing this still requires two sets of lagoons – one with a cover to collect the gas and one uncovered to collect the waste and spray on fields. So the lagoon and spraying remain in place.

We should urge Governor Cooper to veto the Farm Bill on the grounds that it does nothing to protect the environment and the community. It’s just another way to make money while selling the idea to the public that the company has found a new way to address problems with hog waste. Easing the permit system for Smithfield and Dominion should be rejected. Call Governor Cooper, @ 919-814-2000.

Source: NC Policy Watch special report: The great methane debate and what it could mean for North Carolina

House Passes 2021 Farm Bill

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