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By Greg Barnes and Emily Davis

Environmentalists say the latest version of the North Carolina Senate’s proposed Farm Act of 2019 would further erode transparency in the hog industry and could forever cement in place the use of lagoons and spray fields to eliminate hog waste.

Hog production provisions in the act, which appear to be geared toward the emerging waste-to-biogas industry, were discussed in a Senate environmental committee Thursday for a second time since last week. The provisions were hurriedly inserted into an original bill that had pertained largely to the state’s hemp industry. Committee members are expected to vote on the proposal next week.

The hog provisions follow an announcement in October by Smithfield Foods, the largest hog producer in North Carolina, and the country, saying it would cover about 90 percent of its hog lagoons and add anaerobic digesters within 10 years. The covers would trap methane, which would be siphoned off, converted into natural gas, and sold to power companies.

While the hog industry heralds the move, saying it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and allow participating farmers to make more money, the state’s environmental groups say it does nothing to rid the state of its antiquated lagoon and spray field systems that are polluting air, soil, groundwater, rivers and streams.

Waste from a hog farm pours from a barn into an uncovered lagoon in Duplin County. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

Covering the lagoons and adding digesters could provide enough natural gas from hog waste to power 140,000 homes at a cost roughly the same as solar power, according to a study  published in 2013 by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

The Senate’s proposed Farm Act of 2019 would allow farmers to modify their operations provided they don’t increase their permitted hog capacity and the Environmental Management Commission determines that their hog waste systems meet or exceed five performance standards. Those standards are:

  • Eliminate the discharge of animal waste to surface water and groundwater through direct discharge, seepage or runoff.
  • Substantially eliminate atmospheric emission of ammonia.
  • Substantially eliminate the emission of odors detectable beyond the farm’s boundaries.
  • Substantially eliminate the release of disease-transmitting vectors and airborne pathogens.
  • Substantially eliminate nutrient and heavy metal contamination of soil and groundwater.

Little has changed

That section of the Farm Act appears to differ little from legislation passed in 2007 that placed a moratorium on new or expanded farms unless those same performance standards were reached.

But environmentalists argue that the Farm Act would allow farmers to modify, expand or construct hog farms under a general permit, not an individual one as required today.

“This favors existing farms by allowing them to skirt the 2007 moratorium,” the Southern Environmental Law Center said in a statement on the Farm Act. “New entrants to the market must meet the new performance standards. Under this provision existing entities can change around whatever they want without meeting performance standards for new animal waste management systems.”

Angie Maier, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Pork Council, pointed out during the committee hearing that no new hog farms have been permitted since 1997, and only one farm has been allowed to expand. The reason, she said, is that it costs too much.

“The intent of that moratorium was never to tie farmer’s hands so that incremental improvements and technology upgrades would not be allowed,” she said.

It doesn’t appear that the state Department of Environmental Quality objects to the Farm Act as it pertains to the hog permit provisions.

Department spokeswoman Sharon Martin said in an email that “DEQ was consulted on the technical aspects of the language and it appears to work in concert with our permits.”

The goal of the provisions, environmentalists and hog industry officials agree, is to make it easier for farmers to start converting hog waste into profitable natural gas as Smithfield gears up to add digesters and lagoon covers to the farms that raise its hogs. Farmers are not required to participate.

More harm than good

Environmentalists say covering the lagoons and adding digesters could pose more harm than good. Will Hendrick, staff attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance and manager of the N.C. Pure Farms, Pure Waters Campaign, argues that covers and digesters add to the nitrogen in the waste lagoons, which is then disposed of on farm fields by spraying. That, in turn, leads to more contamination of soil and groundwater, which eventually makes its way into surface waters, Hendrick said.

Perhaps more importantly, Hendrick said, the hog provisions in the act would not pertain to farmers who want to keep the status quo. They can continue operating their farms using lagoons and spray fields — and damaging the environment, he maintains — just as they have been doing for nearly three decades.

“It’s a retreat from long-standing goals toward technological progress,” Hendrick said.

Brooks Rainey Pearson, a staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, expressed similar concerns.

“It would lock in the lagoon and spray field method that this body has been promising North Carolina that we would move away from for over 20 years,” Rainey Pearson said. “The senate budget would cement the general permit in place until 2020 so there would be no new monitoring done by these facilities that are being converted.”

Earlier this week, the Senate introduced a proposed state budget that included policy provisions to delay revisions to general permits for hog and poultry farms for a year. The proposal rankled DEQ Secretary Michael Regan. The DEQ had spent months reviewing public comments before adding numerous new restrictions, many of which were opposed by hog farmers. Regan thinks the Senate overstepped its bounds.

“The Senate’s budget provision, unlike our permit process or even a proposed bill, lacks transparency and justification,” Regan said in a statement Wednesday. He noted that the DEQ had had discussions with stakeholders and reviewed more than 6,500 public comments on their plan, while the Senate provisions were crafted behind closed doors.

Moratorium stopped new hog farms

A year after Hurricane Floyd inundated hog lagoons in 1999, 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.

Today, Smithfield alleges that the new technologies developed over the course of two decades are not economically feasible, while environmentalists argue that the company just doesn’t want to spend the money.

And while the Senate’s version of the Farm Act of 2019 would not allow more hogs on farms, Hendrick thinks it may be just a matter of time before they will be allowed to do just that.

“It’s part of a coordinated, multi-pronged attack,” Hendrick said, adding that he has seen similar tactics too often in the past.

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Hendrick and other environmentalists also object to a section in the act that would keep certain documents generated by soil and water conservation districts from becoming public.

Rainey Pearson said those districts perform important tasks, including reviews and site assessments of hog farms and taking complaints from neighbors. All of those documents would no longer be considered public records, she said.

Under other sections of the Farm Act, she said, developers of swine biogas projects would not have to meet odor rules, and officials with soil and water conservation districts or the private contractors they hire could design biogas digesters without being licensed engineers.

“Instead of looking at the facts about this industry, there’s a move to shroud it in further secrecy,” Hendrick said during the committee meeting. “I believe that effective public policy cannot be developed by depriving public access to records and I would opine that the parties that need to see those records include all North Carolinians.”

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Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com