The NC Pork Council’s motto is “to ensure a socially responsible and profitable North Carolina pork industry.” During its 60-year history, the swine industry lobbying organization has been enormously successful at persuading the general assembly to ensure its profitability while not holding them accountable for being “socially responsible.” This year has been no exception, particularly when it comes to reducing regulatory hurdles and making it easier to expand into a growing energy sector.
Align RNG, a joint venture between Smithfield and Dominion Energy, is betting big on converting waste from Smithfield’s farms into biogas here in North Carolina. Waste lagoons at 19 “grow finish” sites where hogs are fattened before slaughter will be covered. The resulting methane will be transported through a 30-mile pipeline and processed at a new central system before being injected into an existing natural gas pipeline.
Previously, each permit included specific monitoring requirements and had to be granted on an individual basis that required public hearings and a comment period.
The 2021 Farm Bill signed by Gov Cooper on July 2, contains a provision that does away with these safeguards. To fast-track the permitting process, DEQ must draft a “general permit” for existing hog farms by June 30, 2022. Farms could apply for one general permit as umbrella coverage for all of its digesters. If DEQ fails to approve the permit in 90 days, the application would be deemed approved and valid for up to five years. DEQ is not required to notify the public or solicit public feedback on individual permit decisions once the general permit is final.
Opponents of this new one-size-fits-all permit say the digesters are set-up differently from farm to farm and, therefore, should be permitted individually. General permits also make it easy for companies to get their permits while sharing less information with the community. At the same time, it drastically reduces the ability of members of the surrounding communities to weigh in.
Unlike the Pork Council, the mostly Black, Latino and Indigneous peoples who are disproportionately impacted by the industrial hog farms have no political clout to exert. Environmental activists and civil rights groups are calling on the US EPA and NC DEQ to protect the people in the nearby neighborhoods who have been dealing with these problems for decades.
In 2018, then-DEQ administrator Michael Regan created the Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board (EJEAB) to provide input on environmental justice issues and to ensure state policies do not adversely impact communities. EJEAB called the biogas project a critical environmental justice issue.
Included in the Board’s nine recommendations are a minimum 60-day notice requirement for upcoming meetings and the inclusion of Spanish interpreters and translations of draft permits. It also wants more air and water monitoring and data collection of the impacts of waste management systems.
Time will tell if the General Assembly listens.