Draft North Carolina General Permit for animal waste to gas projects curtails public input and fails to protect communities or the environment
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality on Tuesday issued a draft permit that would allow existing industrial animal operations to build and operate animal waste digester systems that use hog feces and urine to produce biogas to be burned on site or transported to processing plants.
The draft general permit lacks critical protections against harmful pollution and common-sense monitoring requirements to enforce the permit conditions. The draft permit, if adopted as written, will allow industrial hog operations to continue their practice of storing raw hog urine and feces in open lagoons and spraying it on fields. The process of producing gas from the waste lagoons makes the waste more polluting and increases the risk of serious health problems and even death for people living nearby.
“The draft general permit fails to protect families from harmful pollution from industrial animal operations and fails to provide North Carolinians an opportunity to have a voice in what happens in their communities,” said Blakely Hildebrand, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The lack of protections and adequate opportunity for neighbors to weigh in on these dangerous operations exacerbates the burden that industrial animal operations impose on Black, Latino, Native American, and low-wealth communities. These communities are already disproportionately burdened by the pollution and health risks caused by these operations.”
To date, DEQ has issued individual permits for most biogas projects. After residents spoke out against the permits related to Align RNG’s first large-scale biogas project—a joint venture of Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy—politicians in the North Carolina legislature moved to significantly limit public input and fast-track these permits going forward in the 2021 Farm Act which lays out requirements for the general permit and became law last summer.
On behalf of the Duplin County branch of the N.C. NAACP and the N.C. Poor People’s Campaign, SELC filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showing that DEQ’s permitting of biogas projects in North Carolina has a discriminatory impact on people of color in eastern North Carolina. EPA agreed to investigate this complaint in January. And in partnership with Environmental Justice Community Action Network and Cape Fear River Watch, SELC challenged four permits issued to Smithfield-owned hog operations to produce biogas because the permits fail to prevent water pollution.
DEQ is holding three in-person public hearings and one virtual public hearing in April and will accept public comments on the draft permit until May 2, 2022.