By Greg Barnes

North Carolina’s environmental regulators approved water quality permits last month that will allow four Smithfield Foods’ hog farms in Sampson and Duplin counties to continue their plans to turn hog waste into renewable energy.

Those plans are part of an agreement between Smithfield and Dominion Energy — through a joint venture called Align RNG — to cover swine waste lagoons with anaerobic digesters at 90 percent of North Carolina’s industrial hog finishing farms within the next decade.

On the surface, at least, it sounds like a great plan, one supported by the national Environmental Defense Fund, which is among the world’s leading environmental organizations.

The digesters would trap methane gas from the hog waste and send it to a processing plant, where it would be converted into natural gas before being injected into a Dominion Energy pipeline and used to help power hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.

Smithfield estimates that its plans nationwide would reduce the company’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80 percent. The plans would also spur job growth in related fields, such as utility-scale batteries.

What could possibly be wrong with that?

Plenty, says the Southern Environmental Law Center, which late last month challenged the Department of Environmental Quality’s issuance of the four permits on behalf of the Environmental Justice Community Action Network and Cape Fear River Watch.

“There’s no reason to charge ahead with biogas without fixing the underlying pollution and public health harms that are caused by Smithfield’s polluting practices,” said Blakely Hildebrand, a senior attorney for the SELC. “Smithfield is clinging to the cheapest, most harmful method possible for managing untreated hog waste when cleaner solutions are available.”

This year’s proposed Farm Act

On May 11, the North Carolina Senate approved the Farm Act bill of 2021, a section of which environmentalists say would fast-track the permitting process for hog farms wanting to produce biogas and would stifle public input in the process. The bill, approved 28-21, now goes to the House. Not a single Democrat supported Senate Bill 605.

At the center of the debate between the hog industry and environmentalists lies what is known as the Grady Road Project. The project, in a rural area of Sampson and Duplin counties, Align RNG is proposing to construct anaerobic digester systems at 19 hog farms to convert swine waste into biogas. 

shows a man in a t shirt and farmer's cap gesturing towards gas tanks and pipes on a wall in a mostly white room
Mark Maloney looks at equipment in the Optima KV lab, near Kenansville in Duplin County. Maloney is a partner in a project that turns methane from hog waste into natural gas. Photo credit: Greg Barnes

The four permits issued by the DEQ so far would allow those 19 farms, which are owned by Smithfield Foods, to go ahead with their plans to add the digesters, although the SELC’s challenge could cause future roadblocks.

It took the DEQ nearly two years to issue the permits, largely because of pushback from environmental groups and people — mostly Black and low-income — who live near the farms.

The Farm Act of 2021, sponsored by Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Autryville), himself a farmer, would speed up the permitting process, requiring a decision on whether to grant a permit to be made within 90 days of the request. It would also allow farms that want to add anaerobic digesters to get a general permit rather than an individual one.

“When individual operations apply for coverage under that general permit, there’s no requirement for public participation, public hearings, public comments, stakeholder engagement,” said Hildebrand, the SELC attorney. “All of that is cut out with a general permitting scheme.”

The North Carolina Sierra Club also objects to the use of general permits.

“A general permit is typically used where there are a large number of very similar projects with little environmental impact. Biogas facilities do not fit this classification as they vary in size, production volume, and proximity to communities and natural resources such as surface water,” Cynthia Satterfield, acting director of the state’s Sierra Club, said in a statement. ”The current approach, which requires an individual permit for each facility, is more appropriate.”

Sampson County resident Janet Melvin, a Roseboro minister, let her feelings about the general permit proposal be known when she addressed the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee earlier this month before the Senate voted to approve the annual farm bill.

“A general permit will eliminate input from the community, and we have already experienced  what it is like when the community is excluded from what agricultural and energy corporations are doing in our communities,” Melvin told the committee. “Now, the Farm Act bill recommends a general permit for biogas production in a county that has more hogs than people.

“Our very own senator, Brent Jackson, wants to make sure that we the people have little say in the development of the biogas facility. Let me be clear, I am not against hog farmers, or hogs. I am against secrecy and lack of transparency.”

Over the last two years, neighbors of hog farms have won five lawsuits filed against a Smithfiled subsidiary, Murphy-Brown LLC. The residents, almost all in communities of color, argued that the hog farms created such a nuisance — odors, flies, noise and health issues — that they often couldn’t go outside. Juries awarded them more than $500 million, though the awards were later reduced because of limitations created by state law.

In November, a federal appeals court rejected almost all of Smithfield’s arguments. Shortly afterward, Smithfield announced that it had settled the 26 lawsuits filed against the company by about 500 of its neighbors. The terms of the settlements have not been disclosed.

The Grady Road Project

The Grady Road Project began to take shape after Smithfield Foods announced in October 2018 that it planned to construct anaerobic digesters and turn hog waste into natural gas on most of its hog finishing farms in North Carolina, Missouri and Utah within 10 years. 

At the time, Smithfield said those plans would let the company surpass a goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2025.

The Environmental Defense Fund, which helped draft the Smithfield Renewables plan calling for the 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, stood behind Smithfield’s plans to tap the biogas market. According to the organization, the 85,000 tons of methane captured from hog waste each year would be the equivalent of eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from more than 700,000 homes over 20 years.

Smithfield questions why North Carolina’s environmental groups aren’t on board, as well.

“It is interesting that certain environmental groups are against such a transformational technology – one that substantially benefits the environment. The question is why?” Kraig Westerbeek, senior director of Smithfield Renewables, said in an email to NC Health News. “Covering lagoons or installing digesters to create renewable natural gas on North Carolina hog farms removes up to 80% of all greenhouse gas emissions generated by swine production. That is extremely impactful.”

A month after making the initial announcement about the digesters, Smithfield said it and Dominion Energy were forming Align RNG and committing $250 million to produce biogas from hog waste in the three states.

A year later, Smithfield announced that Align RNG would double its financial commitments to $500 million and expand its biogas efforts throughout the country. More than 100 digesters have been constructed in other states, according to Smithfield’s website.

Not only will covering waste lagoons lead to biogas production, the pork industry maintains, it will also reduce odors and the potential for flooding.

Lagoons and spray fields

It’s not so much that North Carolina’s environmental groups object to biogas, they object mostly to what they see as Smithfield’s failing to spend the money on technology that would allow it to do away with lagoons and spray fields altogether.

Meanwhile, staff from the Environmental Defense Fund stress the importance of methane and it’s role in climate change.

“Methane emitted from manure is a potent greenhouse gas and it is important to advance solutions to control it,” said Maggie Monast, director of Working Lands with the organization. She noted, though, that “community concerns around water quality, odor and health must be transparently addressed through robust community engagement and additional treatment technologies.”

For many of North Carolina’s environmentalists, Smithfield has been enemy No. 1 since the company opened the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse on the banks of the Cape Fear River in Bladen County in the early 1990s.

To begin with, environmentalists couldn’t fathom how the state could allow Smithfield — and the thousands of industrial hog farms that would soon surround it — to build a slaughterhouse in an area prone to hurricanes and flooding. 

The environmentalists’ fears became reality in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd caused 50 hog lagoons to breach or overtop their banks, sending millions of gallons of hog waste into streams and rivers. Lagoons also flooded during Hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018.

Shortly after Hurricane Floyd, 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.

shows an array of stainless steel tanks and pipes with valves and spigots
This array of tanks is a small plant that converts methane into natural gas, before it is injected into a pipeline that serves the East Coast. The methane is gathered from hog lagoons covered to digest hog waste and capture the methane produced by the waste. Optima KV sells the natural gas to Duke Energy. Photo credit: Greg Barnes

Today, 21 years later, Smithfield continues to claim that there are no environmentally superior technologies that would be economically feasible for use in North Carolina. So the farmers who raise hogs for the pork giant continue life as usual, emptying the waste from their barns into big waste pits and then spraying the liquid onto their fields, ostensibly as fertilizer.

Environmentalists say ammonia, nitrogen and other pollutants from that archaic system are polluting the air and the groundwater and damaging people’s health.

A study published this month in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences, and analyzed by the Washington Post, shows that air pollution from Duplin County farms is linked to roughly 98 premature deaths per year, 89 of which are directly linked to hog farms. Nationally, pollution from farms is attributable to more than 17,000 deaths annually, according to the study.

The environmentalists also say nitrogen from hog farms is running off into waterways, increasing the frequency and intensity of algal blooms and fish kills and potentially creating what soon could become an environmental disaster. 

They say digesters will concentrate the levels of nitrogen in the waste lagoons because the covers prevent it from escaping. That claim is backed by a Colorado State University report saying the levels of nitrogen in a covered lagoon can increase by up to 3.5 times that of one without a cover.

“There’s no reason to charge ahead with biogas without fixing the results of water pollution, air pollution and odors that have plagued communities for decades,” the SELC’s Hildebrand said. “These problems can be fixed. They aren’t fixed by biogas production and the polluters should deal with this pollution without continuing to place the burden of pollution onto neighbors who are disproportionately communities of color.”

To move forward with biogas, Hildebrand argues, would only further entrench the use of lagoons and spray fields.

A small-scale success story

Mark Maloney tries to avoid the political fray. Mostly, he just wants to start companies and help save the planet from climate change. He thinks turning hog waste into biogas is a pretty good start.

Maloney is a chief executive of Optima KV, the first project in North Carolina that has successfully produced and sold natural gas that was created by 64,000 hogs on five farms under contract with Smithfield Foods in Duplin County. 

Optima KV is a small operation, but Maloney likes to think big. He sees a future in biogas in North Carolina not only from hog farms but from the state’s enormous poultry industry and from food, human and industrial organic waste.

“North Carolina could be the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” Maloney said, noting that the state ranks third in its biogas potential behind only the much larger California and Texas.“There’s natural gas wells all around us. I mean all around us, and nobody is doing s**t about it.” 

Maloney’s ranking is backed by a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Optima KV is now producing enough natural gas from hog waste to power about 1,800 homes, the equivalent of nearby Kenansville twice over. Maloney said the project, which started producing natural gas in 2018, has been slowed by the coronavirus and state regulations. He said he would like to add seven to 15 more farms to the grid.

If that were to happen, he said, Optima KV would start to show a profit, “on paper,” at least.

Maloney believes North Carolina has been slow to seize the untapped potential of biogas partly because state regulations hinder its development.

“For some reason, North Carolina is making it harder than it should be,” Maloney said as he gave a tour of Optima KV. 

“This is the future of energy,” he said. “These projects, do they solve everything? No. But do they make it better …”

Correction: This story was updated to credit the Washington Post for data from Duplin County found in a study published by PNAS.

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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