The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched an investigation into a decision that would allow four North Carolina hog-feeding operations to produce biogas from hog waste lagoons—or large, swamp-like pits where farmers store the animals’ waste.
The investigation, which began on Jan. 13, raises into question the environmental justice concerns of the North Carolina regulator’s move to allow the biogas operations and how it may disproportionately impact and pollute the surrounding communities of color, reports Inside Climate News.
The EPA probe comes after a September 2021 complaint by the Southern Environmental Law Center, stating that the biogas operations would pollute the air and groundwater in predominantly Black and Latinx communities; therefore, violating North Carolina environmental laws and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
The state’s plan, which would allow the use of hog waste digesting equipment to create the biogas, failed to address the disproportionate impact on the surrounding communities in its Department of Environmental Quality’s environmental justice report. The $500-million biogas production project would involve anaerobic digestors installed over the hog waste lagoons, which would capture methane to then be sold as natural gas.
The four facilities that received the permits—all owned by Smithfield Foods Inc.—are located in Dublin and Sampson counties, which are both home to high populations of Hispanic, Latinx and Black residents, according to census data. The counties also lead in the highest concentration of hog production facilities in the country, raising more than nine million hogs a year.
Questions related to the environmental impact of hog waste collection are not new to the region. The North Carolina counties are prone to flooding, and after hurricanes and heavy rainfall caused lagoons to overflow on multiple occasions, Smithfield Foods Inc. agreed in 2000 to pay for research into a new, “environmentally effective and economically viable” way to deal with the hog waste, according to a 2018 ProPublica investigation. But 22 years later, and just three years from the expiration date of Smithfield’s financial deal, the open pit lagoons are still used and still a cause for environmental concern.
In response to environmental organizations’ and citizens’ concerns over the permits, on Oct. 22, 2021, James H. Johnson, who serves as the chair of the state’s Environmental Justice And Equity Advisory Board, sent a note to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality secretary Elizabeth Biser, calling for protection against hog waste pollution to be included within the permits and referring to the biogas produced in this process as “not a clean source of energy.”
In spite of the EPA’s decision to investigate the permits and backlash from concerned community members, North Carolina’s state regulator is on track for finalizing the permits in July of this year.