Last spring, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approved Smithfield subsidiary Murphy-Brown permits to install anaerobic digesters at four swine feeding operations in Duplin and Sampson counties to convert hog waste into biogas. In response, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed a Title VI complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on behalf of the Duplin County NAACP and the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign. The complaint alleged that by allowing continued use of waste lagoons and the outdated sprayfield system to produce energy, the environmental agency violated the equal protection clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Petitioners say the biogas process would unduly burden the disproportionately Black, Hispanic and low-wealth residents with pollution and adverse health risks, including premature death, if the permits are allowed to stand. SELC also alleged that DEQ failed to identify and require cleaner technology to manage hog waste or to evaluate and address the effect of its permitting decisions on water quality, both of which are mandated by state law.
The EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office (ECRCO) is responsible for reviewing administrative complaints and determining whether to accept, reject or refer it to the appropriate federal agency. In a January 13, 2022 letter to SELC staff attorney Blakley Hildebrand, the agency announced that it will investigate the claims that issuing the permits discriminated on the basis of race or national origin. ECRCO will also seek to determine if DEQ’s public participation policy complies with civil rights laws and EPA nondiscrimination policies.
The notification cautioned that the initiation of an investigation of the issues is not a decision on the merits. “ECRCO is a neutral fact finder and will begin its process to gather the relevant information, discuss the matter further with you and NC DEQ, and determine the next steps for the agency’s internal procedures,” read the letter.
“We are pleased that EPA will investigate how DEQ’s failure to require common-sense measures to limit pollution is impacting families in Duplin and Sampson counties,” Hildebrand said in a statement.
After environmental groups voiced their concerns about the impact on air and water quality, the biogas permits were later modified to require quarterly nutrient and pathogen sampling at two of the four farms; the other two farms are required to submit detailed reports to the agency explaining how they plan to manage waste spray fields to lessen impacts on nearby properties. However, the complaint alleges that the environmental justice review was inadequate because the permit modifications were not meaningful.
In response to ECRCO’s decision to move forward with the investigation, a statement from DEQ said the agency is “committed to the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all North Carolinians and we have given significant priority to compliance with Title VI requirements, particularly with regard to animal waste permitting.”
DEQ has 30 calendar days from receipt of the notice to respond to, rebut or deny in writing the issues accepted for investigation.