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In role as judge, Donald van der Vaart rules on behalf of DEQ, hog farms and against enviro groups

The black circles show the location of four confirmed farms that will send biogas to the Align RNG facility on Highway 24 in Turkey. Blue circles show farms closest to the pipeline route, but have not been confirmed. Nineteen farms will reportedly send biogas to Align RNG but neither Dominion Energy nor Smithfield Foods will disclose the names, not even to state regulators. (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 was legally right to allow industrialized hog farms to install equipment on their waste lagoons — known as anaerobic digesters — to generate biogas, the state’s chief administrative law judge ruled today.

The judge: former DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart, appointed to the post by State Supreme Court Cheif Justice Paul Newby last July. Van der Vaart, known for his anti-regulatory stances, served as DEQ secretary under former Gov. Pat McCrory.

Two groups, the Environmental Justice Community Action Network and Cape Fear River Watch, had contested DEQ’s permitting of anaerobic digesters — essentially enormous tarps — on waste lagoons at four farms: The Goodson Farm and the Kilpatrick Farm in Sampson County; and the Benson Farm and Waters Farm in Duplin County.

The digesters capture methane, which is then sent via pipeline to the Align RNG facility in Turkey in Sampson County. From there, Align RNG — a partnership between Dominion and Smithfield Foods/Murphy-Brown — upgrades the biogas and injects it into a natural gas pipeline. Duke Energy uses the gas to generate electricity.

Murphy-Brown intervened in the contested case, siding with DEQ.

The environmental groups’ challenge focused on two issues: whether state law regarding water quality protections applies to DEQ’s permitting decisions for these farms; and whether the farms’ digester permits must use waste treatment and disposal systems with the least harmful impact on the environment.

Biogas systems usually cover a single lagoon, but a second one is necessary to capture overflow; it is usually uncovered. The waste captured in the second lagoon is sprayed on nearby fields. This lagoon-and-sprayfield system contributes to odors, flies, and in some cases, even groundwater, drinking water and surface water contamination.

The groups also argued that DEQ should have also considered the air quality effects of ammonia emissions from the secondary lagoons and sprayfields.

DEQ and Murphy-Brown argued that the agency does not have the authority under state law to regulate or limit ammonia emissions through these permitting decisions. Ammonia emissions are included in permits only for new or expanding animal waste systems.

In addition to the four farms named in the contested case, there are a dozen more with approved digesters, according to DEQ. It is unclear whether any of these farms are part of the Align RNG project. More than a year ago, Align RNG refused to disclose t0 DEQ — despite the agency’s request — the locations of 15 of 19 farms that reportedly will supply the facility with biogas. A DEQ spokesman told Policy Watch that Align RNG has still not named those farms.

The environmental groups can appeal to New Hanover County Superior Court, where the case was filed. Cape Fear River Watch is headquartered in New Hanover County. The Southern Environmental Law Center represented the groups.

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