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DEQ approves air permit for Align RNG biogas facility, but hog farms will need approvals

 

The blue circles represent farms closes to the pipeline route, represented 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. (Base map and pipeline route, November 2019: 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 has approved a controversial air permit for a proposed biogas gathering and processing facility in Turkey, on the Sampson and Duplin county line. However, the Align RNG facility, co-owned by Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy, will not process biogas until the participating hog farms receive the required permits, DEQ announced today.

Key details of the $30 million proposal, billed as the largest swine waste-to-energy project in North Carolina, have been kept secret, even from state regulators. Although capturing methane, a potent greenhouse gas and driver of climate change, is important, the Align RNG project is not completely “clean.” A central gas collection facility on the Duplin-Sampson county line would emit more than 60 tons of pollution each year, according to documents submitted to the Division of Air Quality.

Nineteen farms, only four of which have been named, would each cover one of their lagoons and install an anaerobic digester to capture the methane, then funnel the gas to a 30-mile long pipeline to the Align RNG station. The gas would be conditioned at the station to be injected into an existing Piedmont Energy natural gas pipeline. While some methane will be captured from the farms, they would still use open lagoons to contain excess waste and would use spray it on their fields, as they have done for decades.

According to a DEQ press release, the air permit contains additional requirements, based on public comments;

  • Hourly monitoring of the tail gas flow and hydrogen sulfide concentration entering the “iron sponge” sulfur removal control device
  • Daily record-keeping of the sulfur dioxide emissions from the flares
  • An increased frequency of the analysis of the hydrogen sulfide concentration entering the facility to a monthly basis to account for potential seasonal variations
  • Specifies the maximum biogas flow limit for the facility
  • Requires an inspection, maintenance, and calibration plan for the facility’s air pollution control equipment and monitors to be submitted to DAQ for approval.

Any swine farm choosing to participate in the biogas project is required to submit a permit application to the Division of Water Resources. “DWR will thoroughly review each application for permit modification on a case-by-case basis and the issuance of this air permit does not indicate the outcome of the DWR permit processes.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center issued a statement Jan. 7 opposing DEQ’s approval:

“We are disappointed in DEQ’s decision to issue an air permit for Smithfield and Dominion’s biogas facility without considering the cumulative harm of this project to our air and water and nearby communities that are disproportionately Black and Brown,” said attorney Blakely Hildebrand. “Moreover, DEQ issued this permit without complete information from Smithfield and Dominion as to what their industrial project entails. We hope DEQ will listen to community members later this month at its hearing on water permits for just four of the 19 industrial-scale hog operations that are part of this biogas project.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center submitted comments on the draft permit to DEQ that are available at https://www.southernenvironment.org/uploads/words_docs/2020-11-20_-_SELC_Align_RNG_Updated_Permit_Comments_and_Exhibits_1-10.pdf

On Jan. 26, the Division of Water Resources will hold a public meeting on the four swine farms that are seeking modifications to their operating permits in order to participate in the Align RNG project. DWR is also currently accepting comment on those proposed permit modifications.  Additional information on how to participate in the meeting and register to speak is available here https://deq.nc.gov/news/events/swine-biogas-public-meeting.

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