Democratic state lawmakers ask DEQ to deny water quality permits for Align RNG biogas farms

Thirty Democratic legislators sent a letter to the NC Department of Environmental Quality today asking the agency to deny water quality permits for farms who plan to participate in the controversial Align RNG biogas project.

Align RNG is a partnership between Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy. The new company plans to build a 30-mile pipeline network among 19 farms in Duplin and Sampson counties that will install or convert one lagoon to a covered gas capture system. The farms will then ship methane generated by the hog waste to a central processing plant along N.C. Highway 24 in Turkey. From there, the Align RNG plant will upgrade the gas and inject it into the Piedmont natural gas line, where it will be purchased from Piedmont by Duke Energy.

However, Align RNG has intentionally not disclosed the full list of the farms, nor their locations, to the public or DEQ. The four farms that plan to participate in the Align RNG project — M&M Waters, Benson, Kilpatrick Farm 1, 2, 4 and 5/Merritt Farm and Farm 2037/2038 — are corporately owned and operated by Smithfield.

“Capping a lagoon to produce biogas actually increases water pollution because it leads to higher concentrations of ammonia in the sprayed waste, the letter reads. “Biogas production will not alleviate odors and other intolerable conditions caused by lagoons and spray fields.”

The list of lawmakers included Reps. Ricky Hurtado, Pricey Harrison, Deb Butler, and John Autry, and and Sens. Natasha Marcus, Valerie Foushee, Michael Garrett, and Mike Woodard.

“We respectfully request that DEQ deny the pending water permits” for the project until Smithfield “commits to install cleaner, more sustainable technology that protects people and the environment,” the lawmakers’ letter said. “DEQ must also demand more transparency from Smithfield and Dominion about the details and environmental and public health impacts of this project.”

The biogas project does not eliminate the outdated lagoon and spray field system. While one capped and synthetically lined lagoon would capture waste and methane — called a digester — a second open-air lagoon would also store effluent from that digester. The effluent would then be sprayed on farm fields, just as is currently done.

DEQ’s Air Quality Division already has approved an air permit for the Align RNG gas processing facility. However, the farms must obtain their own individual water quality permits, which would prohibit runoff from the farms into wetlands and waterways.

In their letter, state lawmakers noted that “citizens have spoke out over the last several years.  They have called, written and attended community meetings and spoken at public hearings — making it loud and clear that they are deeply concerned about the impact of industrial hog farms on their health, families and communities.

DEQ held a virtual public hearing earlier this week, attended by roughly 150 people. At least two-thirds of those who spoke about the project opposed it. The third who supported the project were affiliated with Align RNG, contract hog farmers, the Pork Council and the Farm Bureau. Among the main concerns were the project’s cumulative environmental and public impacts on the predominantly Black and Latinx communities in the area. State law requires DEQ to consider cumulative impacts in its permitting deliberations. But without the full list of the 19 farms the agency can’t fully evaluate the potential harms.

“State law is very clear,” said Blakely Hildebrand, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, at the hearing. “Before issuing permits, they must get information from Smithfield.”

Several commenters this week were concerned about the increased ammonia concentrations that would leave the digester,  enter the secondary lagoon, as subsequently the air and land. They also worried that the biogas project was merely an incentive for Smithfield to continue using the lagoon and spray field systems, instead of seeking environmentally superior waste management technologies.

This biogas system does not meet all of the criteria for an environmentally superior technology, Christine Lawson, head of DEQ’s Animal Feeding Operations Section, said at the hearing.

It is yet unclear how much methane could be reduced at the individual farms because there is no monitoring data to serve as a baseline.

Elizabeth Pierce, a volunteer with the NC Environmental Justice Network and the Citizens Climate lobby, told DEQ in her comments that the digesters are not a solution to managing hog waste. “The retention of hog manure will be profitable and no longer a byproduct but a generator of profit in its own right,” she said. “Even if methane is successfully captured, burning of the biogas has the same problems as natural gas. It’s a worrisome development.”

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