DEQ to Align RNG: Tell us the location of the hog farms in biogas project

The blue circles represent farms closes to the pipeline route, reprsented by the orange line; however, these farms have not been confirmed as participating in the project. The black circles show the location of confirmed farms. The map is dated November 2019. (Base map and pipeline route: Land Management Group, submitted to the US Army Corps of Engineers; farm locations based on DEQ mapping tool and documents, and USACE filings)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality is pressing Align RNG, a partnership between Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy, to reveal the locations of hog farms involved in the largest biogas project in the state.

The Division of Air Quality sent a letter dated Dec. 8 to Align RNG with a series of questions about the farms, potential emissions, as well as other information about the project, none of which the company so far has been willing to make public.

As Policy Watch previously reported, Align RNG has refused to disclose the names and locations of 15 of the 19 farms, making it difficult if not impossible to determine the environmental impact of the proposal. While the company has published a general pipeline route as part of its air permit application, the map is a year old and contains no detail.

The four farms that Align RNG did disclose are corporately owned by Murphy-Brown/Smithfield.

According to Align RNG, the 19 participating farms would capture methane in anaerobic digesters — essentially covered lagoons that breakdown gases without oxygen. The biogas would then be transported through 30 miles of low-pressure gathering lines to a facility on the Duplin-Sampson county line between Turkey and Warsaw on NC Highway 24. From there, Align RNG would upgrade the quality of the gas and inject it into an existing pipeline operated by Piedmont Natural Gas Company.

State environmental officials want the additional information so they can determine whether emissions from the farms should be regulated, and if those gases “may cause community impacts such as odor.”

Division of Air Quality officials also requested emissions estimates of methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from the digesters and covered lagoons, including leaks and fugitive emissions on a site-by site bases. The letter also asks Align RNG to provide current emission estimates of these gases at each of the existing 19 farms and compare them to projected emissions.

The agency also wants to know details on property easements for the pipeline. Participating farms could be as far as 20 miles away from the main facility.

The farms would also be equipped with emergency flares, which would vent gas in case of a system shutdown. The Division of Air Quality also asked Align RNG to defend their assertion that there would be “no excess gas” emitted from the farms.

At a recent public hearing, several commenters said emissions from the farms should be included with those released from the main BF Grady upgrading facility, and considered as one project. If the Division of Air Quality agrees, the air permit could be classified as a Title V, reserved for projects with the highest potential emissions.

It’s unclear why Align RNG has not disclosed the locations of the farms. In an email sent last month, Policy Watch asked Aaron Ruby, a Dominion spokesman, about the site locations; he did not answer the question.

The US Army Corps of Engineers is also keeping that information secret; the Corps is involved in the project because the pipeline could cross or pass near wetlands and streams.

However, the Corps redacted precise latitude and longitude coordinates from public documents. A Corps spokeswoman told Policy Watch the information was not public because of homeland security reasons. Similarly, the Corps sent a letter to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which also requested location information, stating that public release of detailed location data is exempt under the Freedom of Information Act.

The disclosure could allow “terrorists or other criminal elements to locate the pipeline with precessions and assess those areas where the pipeline may be most vulnerable or where an attack on the pipeline could be expected to cause the most environmental damage and greatest imperil to human life and safety.”

Policy Watch noted to the Corps that the pipeline would be marked with above-ground signage to prevent unintentional breaches if the area is excavated. It also unclear if the pipeline route has been finalized.

According to public documents, Align RNG wanted to begin construction last February and through a consultant tried to convince the Corps to fastback the project. The Corps declined. No has construction begun, a DEQ spokesman said today, and no erosion/sedimentation permits have been issued for such activity.

Since the farms would still have lagoons and spray fields to dispose of leftover feces and urine, opponents of the project say it merely adds to the companies’ profits while failing to benefit the communities.

At a recent public hearing, economic development officials from Duplin and Sampson counties extolled Align RNG’s $300 million to $375 million investment in the project, which would add to area tax revenues. However, local workers would not directly benefit: Only 2.5 permanent positions would be created, in addition to 25-30 temporary construction jobs, according to documents filed with DEQ.

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