KENANSVILLE- For years, claims about discriminatory harm in hog operations have stirred up controversy and division between farmers and environmentalists.

On Sept. 27 Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) announced a complaint filed with the Environmental Protection Agency. The complaint, filed on behalf of the Duplin County Branch of the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP and the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign, alleges the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by issuing permits to a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.

The problem

The complaint states that the permits, issued for biogas production, fail to address pollution problems due to “open lagoons and spray fields.”

Further stating that it will add harmful ammonia into the air increasing fine particulate pollution. The complaint states that it would increase water pollution as a result from ammonia permeating the area resulting in “pollutants being applied directly to crop fields.”

The complaint SELC sent to the EPA states “the threat of groundwater contamination is particularly serious for communities in eastern North Carolina… because these communities are heavily dependent on well water for drinking water.”

Jim Monroe, Smithfield Foods Corporate Affairs vice president, said they were perplexed by the “effort to thwart sustainable farming practices.”

“Turning methane from hog farms into clean energy is an innovative, sustainable practice,” he said.

Monroe also said that the technology is embraced by several environmental groups as an “effective means” to reducing greenhouse gases, and it is an essential element for Smithfield’s goal to become carbon negative by 2030. He explained that the recovery of methane gas from anaerobic digestion waste, generated from swine operations, has the potential to significantly reduce methane emissions.

Chad Herring with Farm Families shared the sentiment, in that biogas, also known as renewable natural gas captures methane from waste lagoons to create renewable natural energy, adding that the process also helps minimize odors from lagoons.

“Dominion Energy and Smithfield Foods are investing $500 million over the next 10 years to capture methane from hog farms and will produce enough clean energy to power more than 70,000 homes,” said Herring. “This is a significant investment to protect our environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

According to him, North Carolina has some of the toughest regulations in the nation, requiring farmers to develop customized waste management plans for their farms.

“Farmers are always striving to continuously improve our operations. The development of RNG projects on our farms is a step forward that should be praised, not criticized. The project (creates) benefits for surrounding communities and (does) not pose any added harm,” he said.

“Our farms operate under a non-discharge permit issued by the State of North Carolina. Therefore, when manure is applied to nearby fields, nutrients are absorbed by the plants and never make it to our streams or rivers,” Herring said.

He also said that in the last decade there have been dozens of lawsuits filed by residents who live near pig farms and none of them have claimed health injuries or sought relief for medical treatments.

“That’s a clear sign that there is scant evidence to suggest that living near pig farms has any negative health impacts,” he added.

“Farmers like me have a hard time comprehending why there is any opposition to these efforts,” he said.

Discriminatory harm

Robert Moore, Duplin County Branch of the NCC NAACP president, was quoted in the complaint stating “Although we understand that the pork industry is important, researchers have repeatedly found that pollution from the state’s industrial hog operations disproportionately affect African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans…”

Monroe says the discriminatory harm allegations are false. He shared data from a demographic analysis conducted by research company Resolution Economics LLC in 2017.

“Census data show that the demographics of populations around hog farms in North Carolina are more than 2-to-1 white to African-American, no matter what distance from the farm is measured. This data shows that the state’s Department of Environmental Quality has not engaged in discrimination in issuing permits to farms in the state.”

The approval process

Opponents of the biogas operation say that “Smithfield wielded its political power” to get approval for producing biogas and that it limited the opportunities of affected people to voice their concerns.

“This action follows rollbacks of nuisance laws, resulting in restricted rights for neighbors of industrial hog operations to seek redress from the loss of use of their property due to pollution and noxious odors,” states the complaint.

According to Monroe, the public engagement process undergone by the company to inform the community, obtain information and address questions, was extensive.

“A robust and unprecedented outreach process, including public engagement with environmental justice and other communities, went on to inform the public,” he said.

Monroe shared that a public meeting was held virtually.

The public meeting was published in notices twice a week on three different area newspapers from Dec. 22, 2020, to Jan. 7, 2021, and through other media distribution channels in English and Spanish.

Opponents to the biogas initiative argue that covering the lagoons to trap the gas will further worsen the impact.

As a newspaper that primarily serves an agricultural community, the Duplin Times strives to bring light to both sides of the story for our readers to form their own opinions.

Ena Sellers may be reached at esellers@ncweeklies.com