Challenge says N.C. permit for hog waste methane gas operations entrenches pollution and harms to communities
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — On behalf of the Environmental Justice Community Action Network and Cape Fear River Watch, the Southern Environmental Law Center challenged a one-size-fits all permit issued by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality that would allow hog operations to use giant pits of untreated hog feces and urine to produce gas while spraying the harmful waste on surrounding fields. This outdated practice continues a long history of water and air pollution and harm to the families – disproportionately Black, Latino, and Native American people – living nearby. The community groups filed the legal challenge in the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings.
In the summer of 2021, despite strong opposition from impacted community groups, the N.C. General Assembly passed and Governor Cooper signed into law the 2021 Farm Act, which charged DEQ with developing a fast-tracked, one-size-fits all permit – or general permit – for swine waste-to-energy projects. DEQ issued the final general permit on June 30, 2022.
“This general permit continues a long legacy of injustice by a powerful industry, entrenching pollution and harms onto people with less political power despite the availability of cleaner, better solutions,” said Blakely Hildebrand, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center which represents Environmental Justice Community Action Network and Cape Fear River Watch in the legal challenge. “The state has a responsibility under the law to protect people from pollution.”
The general permit fails to comply with a state law requirement for cleaner technology and does not include protections against pollution for nearby families, waterways, or air quality.
“Frontline community members strongly opposed the Farm Act and demanded more from DEQ in issuing this permit, but these community concerns fell on deaf ears. Instead, this permit will add to the already heavy burden that communities of color have borne for decades and continue a long-standing environmental injustice,” said Sherri White-Williamson, co-founder of the Environmental Justice Community Action Network.
In issuing the general permit, the legislature and DEQ ignored long-standing and well documented environmental justice and pollution concerns. The general permit issued by DEQ allows the use of an outdated practice of using the waste lagoon and sprayfield system in which untreated hog waste from thousands of animals is collected in large pits and sprayed onto neighboring fields. The general permit increases harm to and is unlikely to result in the benefits claimed by the hog industry.
“The legislature’s passage of the Farm Act and DEQ’s issuance of this permit are just the latest in a long line of decisions that ignore the devastating effect that the hog industry has on our environment. Far from a solution to our climate crisis, this permit gives industry a rubber stamp to keep polluting our air and water rather than holding them accountable to the law,” said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper at Cape Fear River Watch.
Cleaner technologies for managing billions of gallons of hog waste were developed in North Carolina and address many of these concerns but have not been widely adopted by the hog industry. The groups are asking the court to require the Department of Environmental Quality to comply with a law mandating cleaner technology to manage hog waste.