By Greg Barnes
For many, Smithfield Foods’ plans to turn hog waste into renewable natural gas is a welcome sign of progress for a company that has been vilified by environmentalists almost since it opened a slaughterhouse in the small town of Tar Heel in 1992.
Twenty-six years later, thousands of farmers who started raising hogs for Smithfield during that time are still using uncovered lagoons to store hog waste and spraying the nitrogen-rich excess onto their fields.
Last month, largely because of that lagoon-and-sprayfield system, the company that oversees Smithfield’s hog production operations lost its fourth straight federal lawsuit to neighbors of hog farms, who say odors, flies and mist from the sprayfields are upending their lives.
In all, 26 lawsuits involving nearly 500 people have been filed against Smithfield’s hog-production arm, Murphy-Brown. So far, the plaintiffs have been awarded nearly a half-billion dollars, though the amounts were reduced substantially because of a state law capping damages.
To say 2018 was a bad year for Smithfield would be a huge understatement. In September, Hurricane Florence dumped as much as 30 inches of rain over southeastern North Carolina, where most of the farmers under contract with the company are located. The hurricane damaged six hog lagoons and caused 33 more to top their banks, releasing vast amounts of untreated hog waste into rivers and streams. An estimated 5,500 hogs died during the storm.
A month after the hurricane struck, Smithfield announced that it would add covers and anaerobic digesters to hog lagoons on 90 percent of finishing farms in North Carolina, Utah and Missouri within 10 years.
The world’s largest hog producer says the covers and digesters will be used to turn hog waste into renewable natural gas, partly to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2025 by capturing 85,000 tons of methane each year to generate biogas. That’s the equivalent of removing 900,000 cars from the roads.
Smithfield says there are other advantages to covering the lagoons and adding digesters, including reducing sludge, odors and the risk of lagoons flooding during major storms.
That may be true, environmental groups counter, but they argue that covers and digesters only apply a Band-Aid; they don’t solve the problem.
“Nothing is cheaper than an unlined hole in the ground,” said Will Hendrick, staff attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance and manager of the North Carolina Pure Farms, Pure Waters Campaign. “By and large, Smithfield has dug their heels in claiming there is nothing they can do differently.
“They know better, and they have the money to fix it.”
Problems will continue
Lisa Martin, a spokeswoman for Smithfield Foods, said the timing of Smithfield’s announcement to cover hog lagoons and add digesters had nothing to do with lawsuits or Hurricane Florence. In an email, Martin called the announcement “the culmination of decades spent studying and perfecting the commercial viability of ‘manure-to-energy’ projects.”
Those efforts began in 1999, shortly after another hurricane, Floyd, caused 50 hog lagoons to flood. Afterward, then-Gov. Jim Hunt demanded that hog lagoons disappear within 10 years. A year later, Smithfield entered into an agreement with the state, vowing to spend $15 million to help fund development of “environmentally superior” waste management technologies.
Since then, the technologies that have been tried either failed to fulfill their promise or were deemed economically unfeasible.
But some environmental groups say Smithfield isn’t trying hard enough, or just doesn’t want to succeed because of the costs.
Many environmentalists like the idea of turning waste into energy and reducing greenhouse gasses and odors. But they say covering lagoons and adding digesters does not address most of the environmental issues, including nitrogen runoff from the farms and ground pollution from heavy metals.
“It doesn’t solve any of them. It doesn’t even attempt to address most of them,” Hendrick said. “All of those problems are going to continue.”
The Environmental Defense Fund helped Smithfield develop its plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent. Maggie Monast, the organization’s senior manager of economic incentives and agricultural sustainability, supports Smithfield’s plans to cover the lagoons, saying it’s long-overdue progress.
But Monast said she still has concerns about odors, nitrogen and the potential harm to the health of people living next to hog farms.
A study last fall published in N.C. Medical Journal found that communities near hog farms had higher rates of infant mortality and deaths caused by anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis and septicemia. The study didn’t directly link the deaths to hog farms, saying more research was needed.
Covers add nitrogen to lagoons
Not only does Smithfield’s plan to cover lagoons and add digesters fall short, environmentalists say, it could end up doing further harm.
Nitrogen runoff is among the biggest environmental problems associated with hog farms, Hendrick said. Covering the lagoons will result in even more nitrogen having to be sprayed on farm fields because it has nowhere else to go.
Hog lagoon covers keep ammonia and other hog waste gases from escaping into the atmosphere. That means more nitrogen will concentrate in the lagoons. According to Colorado State University Extension, covered lagoons can contain up to 3.5 times the amount of nitrogen as uncovered lagoons.
Hog farmers spray liquid waste containing nitrogen from the lagoons onto adjoining fields when the lagoons start to fill up. Their permits set a limit on how much nitrogen can be applied.
In many cases, farmers will have to use more of their farm fields to eliminate the additional nitrogen trapped under the lagoon covers. If that’s not an option, they could invest in a denitrogenification system, Monast said.
Mark Rice, an extension specialist with N.C. State University, called Smithfield’s plans to cover the lagoons “a good thing as long as the additional nitrogen can be effectively utilized within the farm’s approved waste utilization plan.”
But environmental groups worry that farmers will circumvent the rules governing nitrogen application in their permits. Instead of using more land to spray the excess nitrogen, Hendrick said, farmers may have an incentive to spray more of it on existing fields. He said nitrogen runoff is already “rampant” in North Carolina.
Martin, the Smithfield spokeswoman, countered that farmers will continue to adhere to the nitrogen specifications in their permits.
Even if they do, environmentalists say, there is a question of what consequences spraying more nitrogen could have on neighbors.
“Anywhere you have these massive concentrations of nutrients… there are major problems with managing them,” Monast said. “We just need to make sure the technology is protective of the environment and the people that live nearby. I think this moves them in the right direction.”
New technology needed
The Southern Environmental Law Center and Waterkeeper Alliance say Smithfield has got to do away with lagoons and spray fields and start using superior technology that the company knows will protect the environment and people’s health.
“Biogas technology that doesn’t address water pollution and public health issues associated with industrial-scale hog production is not a complete solution,” said Blakely Hildebrand, a staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We need technology that addresses those.”
Hildebrand noted the Smithfield agreement of 2000 and the technologies that came from it.
“Smithfield has funded this work for many, many years,” she said, “so I’m surprised they haven’t heard of cleaner technologies.”
Hildebrand pointed to a technology called Terra Blue, formerly known as Super Soils.
That system would end the need for waste lagoons by treating effluent in tanks, eliminating any pollution to ground or surface waters and the need to spray liquid waste on farm fields. It would also provide a market for the solids separated from the waste.
In 2013, a study headed by Mike Williams, then-director of N.C. State University’s Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center, concluded that the third generation of Terra Blue “is technically and operationally feasible and can meet the high environmental standards demonstrated in previous versions. The confidence in the technical and environmental achievements by this project is high.”
But Terra Blue has been used only on a few North Carolina farms.
Martin, the Smithfield spokeswoman, said Terra Blue was considered feasible only for new or expanding farms.
“There have been no new farms built in N.C. for nearly two decades,” Martin said in an email. “Of the three Terra Blue systems that have been installed on farms in N.C., only one of the systems is still in operation based on information available to Smithfield.’’
Hendrick, the staff attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance, points to five technologies that have been proven to work in North Carolina but were deemed economically unfeasible, including Terra Blue. He notes that the most recent feasibility study was conducted in 2009. A new study needs to be done, he said.
Rice, the N.C. State extension specialist, agrees with Smithfield’s assessment: “There is nothing that is commercially available that would totally eliminate a lagoon and sprayfield system that is economically viable.”
Lillington hog farmer Tom Butler was among the first in North Carolina to cover his hog lagoons, starting in 2008. Butler raises about 8,000 hogs. In 2012, he added a digester and began using a combination of solar, diesel and biogas to generate electricity for his farm. What power he doesn’t use is sold back to electric cooperatives.
Butler said the covers block all odors from the lagoons, which he called the biggest source of smells on his farm. The covers also guard against flooding during hurricanes and other heavy rains, he said, and they make it easier for him to manage the amount of nitrogen being sprayed onto his fields.
“You don’t have to work at Mother Nature’s calling, you work at your calling,” Butler said. “It’s like having your nitrogen in a bag.”
Butler said the amount of nitrogen in his lagoons nearly doubled after he installed the covers. The extra amount is largely offset, he said, because plants more readily absorb nitrogen that has gone through the digester process.
But like others, Butler sees lagoon covers and digesters largely as a stop-gap, not a complete solution.
“It’s a step and I’ve said that all along, anytime you take a positive step, that’s good,” he said.
Butler, who is a contract farmer for Prestage Farms, repeatedly said he didn’t want to be critical of Smithfield or the hog industry. He has testified in the nuisance lawsuits as a nonhostile witness for plaintiffs, but he said he is willing to speak for either side.
He said Smithfield’s plans don’t address the problems with spray fields, nutrients and sludge. He also questions where Smithfield was 10 years ago, when he first put covers on his lagoons.
“You have to follow the money” to understand why Smithfield is planning to turn hog waste into energy now, Butler said. “At the end of the day, there must be a big payoff in it to invest all of that money.”
A month after Smithfield announced that it would cover 90 percent of lagoons on hog finishing farms within 10 years, the company announced that it would partner with Dominion Energy of Virginia. Together, they plan to spend at least $250 million to turn hog waste into renewable natural gas.
Dominion Energy is among the companies building an estimated $7 billion natural gas pipeline from Virginia to near Lumberton in Robeson County.
Martin said there is no connection between the pipeline and Smithfield’s plan to cover lagoons and add digesters.