Application withdrawn for giant poultry farm in Chatham County

A large poultry farm was proposed to be built on this 64-acre tract along Old US 421 near Goldston in Chatham County. However, that project is now in doubt because a USDA loan application that would have helped pay for the operation has been withdrawn. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

A USDA loan application for a proposed chicken farm near Goldston in Chatham County has been withdrawn, raising questions of whether the enormous operation will be built.

Policy Watch learned of the withdrawal after asking the USDA for its final environmental assessment of the project.

That assessment was being prepared, but will not be completed now that the agency is not backing the loan.

The USDA representative said she could not provide a copy of the withdrawal request because of privacy reasons.

Because of restrictive state and federal disclosure policies, the farmer’s name was redacted from public documents. However, some of the redactions were poorly done, revealing the farmer’s name as Kyle Jackson Fields.

He already raises more than 100,000 birds in three barns on nearby Bear Creek Road for Mountaire Farms, according to Chatham County property records.

Fields was seeking a loan to build four barns, each 66 feet by 400 feet, and capable of holding 40,000 broilers each, which he would also raise for Mountaire. The company has a large slaughter facility 10 miles away in Siler City.

Because the farm would rotate its flocks, Fields could have raised as many as 750,00 broilers each year.

The USDA’s Farm Service Agency is in charge of the loan. The amount is not specified in public documents, but federal policy caps guaranteed operating loans at $1.75 million. The USDA offers FSA guaranteed loans to lenders that work with farmers who can’t borrow from conventional banks.

The farm would have been built on property owned by Watson Place, LLC, whose manager is State Sen. Tom McInnis of Richmond County. Most poultry farms in the state aren’t required to register or obtain a permit from the NC Department of Environmental Quality, so it’s possible that the farm could still be built, but without a federally backed loan.

Perdue Farms allegedly retaliated against Robeson County chicken farmer for publicizing sick, dying birds

For 25 years, Rudy Howell of Robeson County made a living by raising chicks as a contract grower for Perdue Farms, one of the nation’s largest poultry producers. He had previously won “Top Producer of the Year” several times. But last summer, Howell invited environmental and animal welfare advocates to his farm to document Perdue’s allegedly poor sanitation practices, as well as his public health concerns regarding the sick and dying hatchlings he received from the company.

Perdue suddenly severed his contract. Howell closed his farm.

Now according to a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, Howell says Perdue retaliated against him for openly contradicting the company’s marketing promises of a kinder, gentler and healthier chicken.

Perdue’s attorney did not respond to an email from Policy Watch seeking comment. But according to the legal complaint, Perdue officials cited Howell for giving four dying chicks to a videographer who wanted to rescue them; by doing so, Perdue alleged that Howell in effect took company property without permission.

The company also alleged that Howell allowed outsiders on his farm, in violation of biosecurity protocols. However, the outsiders — two riverkeepers, Larry Baldwin and Jeff Currie, as well as two animal rights advocates — dressed in personal protective gear that Howell had requested from Perdue — and that the company reportedly gave him.

In the complaint, Howell alleges that Perdue often supplied moldy feed for the chicks, delivered chicks in filthy trays and failed to sanitize trailers and catch machines, which could have cross-contaminated his farm.

In addition, Howell said the company overstuffed transport cages and “willfully dropped chickens on their head during weighing.” The same day the birds were dropped on their head, a Perdue representative reportedly told Howell to “Remember, chickens have feelings,” said Amanda Hitt, attorney with the Government Accountability Project. The firm specializes in whistleblower litigation and is representing Howell.

Howell reportedly told Perdue officials, as well as the USDA, about the problems, but nothing came of his complaints.

What’s unusual about this case is that it’s based on food safety and public health law, as well as traditional legal protections against retaliation. “These chickens are destined to be dinner,” Hitt said. “There are public health concerns.”

(Runoff from dried chicken manure into waterways also presents environmental and public health problems. In the northeastern part of the state, discharge from poultry farms is partially responsible for the proliferation of toxic algae blooms in the Chowan River Basin. Most poultry farms are unregulated and unaccounted for in North Carolina.)

Five years ago Perdue established an animal welfare policy to meet the consumer demand for livestock raised to higher standards. To achieve these goals, the company said it would transition to breeds of birds that grow more slowly. Selective breeding for rapid growth causes the chickens to develop leg deformities, suffer heart attacks or become immobile, top-heavy to the point they tip over and can’t right themselves.

“Perdue promised its customers it would meet the animal welfare consumers desired and demanded,” the complaint reads.

But the chicks Howell received were often so sickly that he had to kill 148 in just one barn — by wringing their necks and decapitating them. When environmental and animal advocates visited Howell’s farm a second time last summer, one chick was “lying on the floor unresponsive and breathing heavily,” the complaint reads. Another tiny chick, smaller than the rest, stumbled around with closed eyes and a beak encrusted with feces.” One of animal advocates rescued the lone surviving chick, named him Sweet Pea. He now lives at a farm animal refuge.

Contract growers, whether poultry or swine, have little to no independence in how they operate their farms, nor the profit they make. Companies such as Perdue oversee and mandate every aspect of the operation: the kind and amount of feed, the timing and type of vaccinations, the number and breed of chickens, even where and when to walk the barns.

The business is cutthroat, and not just for the birds. Perdue paid Howell based on ranking ratings according to a “tournament system.” Farmers are ranked against one another and top-ranked farmers can be paid up to 50% more than bottom-ranked farmers.

Since Perdue exerted such “extreme control” over the daily farm operations, Howell contends he can file the whistleblower complaint as an employee, not an independent contractor. “Rudy would say he’s been misclassified,” Hitt said.

There is merit to Howell’s argument. A 2018 Inspector General’s report for the Small Business Administration concluded that some poultry farmers were receiving federally backed loans even though their operations were essentially owned by behemoth companies.

“The large chicken companies in our sample exercised such comprehensive control over the growers,” that the loans were “apparently ineligible under size requirements.”

Since the companies required certain upgrades to barns and equipment, some farmers had to apply for SBA loans to cover the costs — even though company ultimately benefited.

In its sample of farms, the Inspector General found that company control “overcame practically all of a grower’s ability to operate their business independent of integrator [company] mandates.” Failure to comply with company mandates could result in a reduction of birds delivered, withholding flocks or contract cancellation.

An estimated $1.8 billion in in ineligible SBA loans might have been awarded to poultry farmers from 2012 to 2016, according to the report.

Sen. Berger announces appointments to Ag, Enviro committees, responsible for Farm Act, other key measures

Sen. Brent Jackson, a farmer, will co-chair that chamber’s Agriculture, Energy and Environment committee (Photo: NCGA)

Norm Sanderson, Brent Jackson and Chuck Edwards will lead the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee this year, Sen. Pro Tem Phil Berger announced today.

The 14-member committee includes eight Republicans and six Democrats. The Farm Act, clean energy legislation, environmental bills and regulatory reform measures pass through this committee. For example, the committee took up part of a 2019 bill that would have allowed local governments to dump toxic electronics in landfills; it failed. While under GOP leadership, the committee has previously supported relaxing regulations on hog farms  and opposed oversight of the proliferation of poultry operations, most of which operate essentially unchecked.

Republicans: Lisa Stone Barnes, Jim Burgin, David Craven, Steve Jarvis, Tom McInnis, Paul Newton, Dean Proctor and Bob Steinburg

Democrats: Don Davis, Toby Fitch, Michael Garrett, Jeff Jackson, Natalie Murdock and DeAndrea Salvador

Berger also appointed members to the Appropriations on Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources, which oversees budget recommendations in those areas. That includes the NC Department of Environmental Quality, whose budget lawmakers have decimated over the past decade.

Republicans: Chairmen Norman Sanderson, Todd Johnson and Chuck Edwards; members Lisa Stone Barnes, Tom McInnis and Paul Newton,

Democrats: Natasha Marcus, Julie Mayfield, Mujtaba Mohammed, and DeAndrea Salvador

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.

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.