A biogas boondoggle

The hog-farming industry jumps on the renewable energy bandwagon

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After moving around with the US Air Force as newlyweds, Elaine and Jerry Howard returned home and bought a half acre of countryside in Sampson County, North Carolina. It was 1984, and they were in their twenties. Elaine liked the seclusion of the private road they shared with a few neighbors. Jerry liked being able to walk to his mother’s house. They hauled a 1966 Commodore mobile home onto the property, and Jerry added a porch and two bedrooms for their children.

On summer afternoons, they invited family and friends over for cookouts. Parked cars stretched to their back property line, and a boom box blasted Al Green and Barry White. Couples slow-dragged to the music. Kids played dodgeball and pitched pennies. When the sun set and the air grew cooler, they lit bonfires and extended the party into the night.

At first, the Howards didn’t grasp how the landscape around them was changing. The pork industry had targeted the state’s coastal plain, including Sampson County, for a colossal expansion that would revive the agricultural economy amid a shrinking tobacco crop. The first industrial farm near the Howards’ home began operating in 1985. Seven more followed within a 1.5-mile radius before the North Carolina legislature passed a moratorium in 1997. Today, those eight farms have a combined capacity of 43,000 hogs. Most have been cited for environmental infractions. 

Elaine Howard was accustomed to pigs. During her childhood, her father raised up to 10 at a time. But this was a different magnitude: The owners of factory farms—often called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs—contract with corporations like Smithfield Foods and Prestage Farms to raise thousands of pigs at once. The majority of the animals, some 8 million statewide, live packed into giant barns with no outdoor access. Growers flush the pigs’ feces and urine into large earthen pits that the industry calls “lagoons.” Bacterial digestion typically turns the waste pink, and when the lagoons fill, the owners spray the liquid onto their fields, ostensibly as fertilizer. Some of the waste runs into nearby waterways.

Often, it stinks. “Like a busted pipe of sewage,” said Howard, who is now widowed. When she breathes in the odor, it often makes her chest burn. “So I just come in the house, turn the air conditioner on, and try to kill the smell.”

Living with odors is more than a nuisance; researchers have linked it to depression, fatigue, and confusion. It disrupts people’s sleep and discourages them from walking or gardening outdoors. One study found that residents living near hog farms had elevated blood pressure during periods of strong odor.

Elaine Howard has lived in Sampson County, North
Carolina, since 1984. Her house is ringed by eight hog CAFOs
within a 1.5-mile radius.

Some community leaders worry that the health concerns run deeper. “The stench is just the outward symptom of a real air-quality problem,” said Kemp Burdette, riverkeeper for the nonprofit Cape Fear River Watch. Scientists at Duke University correlated living near North Carolina hog CAFOs with higher levels of infant mortality and deaths from kidney disease, blood poisoning, and tuberculosis. Other research has drawn links to asthma symptoms in adolescents as well as gastrointestinal distress leading to emergency room visits. The hog industry has criticized the studies as flawed, inconclusive, and politically motivated. The North Carolina Pork Council cites other research to argue that the health concerns are unfounded.

Recently, when Howard was napping, a stranger knocked on her door and handed her daughter a water-filtration pitcher. The Environmental Justice Community Action Network (EJCAN), a nonprofit that has been fighting to protect Sampson County residents from a whole cluster of polluters, had tested Howard’s well and found that the water contained dangerous levels of nitrate, a chemical found in livestock waste. Drinking nitrate-contaminated water compromises the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to tissues, and some studies have associated high nitrate exposure with an increased risk of gastrointestinal cancers and thyroid disease.

Howard’s troubles have outlived Jerry, who died in 2019, and her son, Jerry Jr., who died last fall. They’ve outlasted the ’66 Commodore. They’ve outlasted a legal battle pitting 500 North Carolina hog-farm neighbors (but not Howard) against Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor. They’ve persisted into an era in which the swine industry is now touting itself as a source of renewable energy.

Industrial hog farms are ramping up efforts to convert methane from swine waste into biogas—a fuel that can heat homes, produce electricity, and power vehicles—by fitting waste lagoons with airtight covers that trap the methane for collection. (The covered pits are referred to as “anaerobic digesters.”) Smithfield says that it’s “a good steward of the environment” for producing what the industry calls “renewable natural gas.” It said in 2018 that it expected more than 90 percent of its North Carolina hog-finishing operations to produce biogas within a decade. Prestage Farms is exploring the possibility too.

Critics believe that it’s little more than an effort by the hog industry to greenwash its image. Many residents who live near CAFOs, Howard points out, are like her: rural, Black, living in modest dwellings. “You don’t never see them go put a hog place in a rich neighborhood with big old two-story houses, do you?” she said. “I think they think we’re just a waste, just like the hogs.”

Critics of the pork industry considered it vindication when Smithfield Foods announced in 2020 that it was settling a battery of federal lawsuits. The 500 plaintiffs, most of them Black, had claimed that the stench, flies, buzzards, and all-night truck traffic made living near CAFOs unbearable. They described the lagoon-and-sprayfield process as noxious and obsolete, and argued that the company could finance a cleaner waste-management system if it wanted to, as it does in other states. Smithfield called the alternatives too costly.

The first five trials, in 2018 and 2019, involved 36 plaintiffs. Juries heard dueling stories about life in swine country. “We used to stay out all day and just enjoy each other, talking, cutting up,” testified Lendora Farland, a nursing assistant and the daughter of two plaintiffs. After a CAFO opened next door, she said, the odor and flies drove her family indoors. Friends stopped visiting, and classmates bullied her because her clothes smelled like feces. “Everything kind of went downhill,” she said.

Smithfield painted a more sanguine image. “Young families have chosen to build homes interspersed with these plaintiffs’ homes, and ride their bikes and ATV and have swimming pools and choose to live the country life and enjoy it,” said defense attorney Mark Anderson during one opening statement. Anderson implied that the litigation was a money grab: “There was harmony in that part of the county until this lawsuit got brought. Until people from outside came in with an agenda.”

At industrial-scale hog
farms like these in Magnolia, North Carolina, fecal matter is stored in lagoons
and then sprayed on farm fields.

Smithfield did disclose, before the fourth trial, that it was taking steps to abate the nuisances at Sholar Farm, the CAFO mentioned in that lawsuit. It was switching to a lower-odor method of applying waste to the sprayfields “to try to be responsive to neighbors,” testified Kraig Westerbeek, a Smithfield official who now heads the company’s hog-production operations. It was eliminating nighttime truck traffic and storing dead hogs in “mortality freezers” instead of in malodorous, unrefrigerated “dead boxes.” Smithfield also announced its intention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by covering most of its lagoons to capture biogas.

All five juries sided with the neighbors. They ordered Smithfield to pay a total of $550 million. (A state law dialed that back to $98 million.) On November 19, 2020, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied Smithfield’s request to retry the first case, and hours later, the company announced it would settle. The details of that settlement remain secret.

For the handful of communities whose cases went to trial, the litigation had a direct impact: Smithfield stopped delivering hogs to the farms mentioned in those lawsuits.

“Kicked us to the curb,” said one of the farmers, Paul Stanley, who now grows grapes and row crops. (He has one surviving hog nursery that was not closed by the lawsuit.) Stanley believes that the verdicts hurt “little guy” growers like himself more than they hurt Smithfield and feels frustrated by the lack of public attention to that harm. “People think that food comes from Hardee’s and McDonald’s,” he said.

For some of the plaintiffs near these hog operations, life improved. Before Farland’s father died in 2023, the family had built a back porch for him to enjoy the clean air. “He was able to sit and watch the rabbits play out there in the field,” she said.

Many other residents saw no change at all. “They still can’t enjoy the air. They can’t enjoy their property,” said Sherri White-Williamson, executive director of EJCAN. Hog farms, she noted, are just one pollution source: Residents also contend with foul-smelling poultry CAFOs that have multiplied so rapidly, with minimal regulation, that North Carolina has become the country’s top poultry producer. Often the farms sit alongside swine operations; Howard can smell both types of waste. Sampson County also has an industrial wood-pellet operation and the state’s largest landfill, which is contaminated with cancer-causing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

“There is, I guess, some level of resignation to the fact that they have to live there,” White-Williamson said. “It would be very difficult to sell any property because of the proximity to those facilities.”

A waste tank at a hog slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina.

The North Carolina Pork Council, which declined an interview request, calls this a minority view. In 2021, the organization commissioned a poll of 500 voters in Sampson County and neighboring Duplin County. Seventy-three percent said that the hog industry has a positive local impact, mostly because of the jobs and economic lift it provides. (Smithfield is Sampson County’s largest employer.) Most respondents had noticed hog odor, but fewer than one in five said it was strong or constant.

Meanwhile, the CAFOs continue to pollute. “You certainly still see sprayers that are overapplying waste,” Burdette said, referring to the practice of applying so much hog waste that it pools on the fields. “That waste is running off into ditches, and those ditches lead to small streams, and those small streams lead to rivers.”

One thing that has changed is the legal standing of neighbors. After the first verdict, North Carolina lawmakers made it almost impossible to file future suits over hog-farm nuisances. Mona Lisa Wallace, an attorney who represented the plaintiffs, said she still gets calls from residents hoping to get relief from the courts. “Just this morning, I took a call from one of them,” she told me last winter. Because of the North Carolina Farm Act of 2018 and other legislation, she had to turn the caller down.

I met Kemp Burdette, along with a pilot from the conservation group SouthWings, at a small airport near Raleigh. I sat shotgun in a four-seat Cessna Skylane, and the plane took off toward the Northeast Cape Fear River.

The suburbs below us looked exactly as Howard had said: neat neighborhoods with two-story houses and not a lagoon in sight. “It’s not that you can’t put a CAFO here,” Burdette said from the back seat. “It just wouldn’t be tolerated.” Before long, the terrain became lower-lying and sparser. Subdivisions gave way to mobile-
home parks.

The first rectangular pink lagoons appeared, and then they were everywhere—checkerboarding the landscape along with hog barns jutting out in rows. We were entering an agricultural zone that once relied heavily on enslaved labor. Today, Black North Carolinians are 1.5 times more likely than whites to live within three miles of an industrial hog operation, according to a 2014 University of North Carolina study. (Latino and Indigenous people are also more likely to live near CAFOs.) The hog industry disputes the study, calling the three-mile measure arbitrary.

Creeks and streams sliced through the countryside below us. Sprayfields stretched to their banks. A tractor pulled a hose through a field glinting with sunlight, an indication that it was wet. “It’s not standing water,” Burdette said. “It’s standing wastewater.” He kept narrating as we flew: We saw a damaged lagoon covered with algae and draining into the woods; an eroded field carved with gullies that channeled waste into a creek; an elementary school near 16 industrial-size poultry barns; a church butting up against a sprayfield. And then we passed directly over Howard’s community.

Burdette pointed to a cratered, unpaved road that dead-ended at a hog farm. A sprayfield sat at the end, next to someone’s backyard. “Have you talked to anyone in the white house?” he asked.

I had. Rayford Bennett Sr., 66, lives there with his family. He went to high school with Howard. Bennett had recently had a stroke, but when he was healthy, he had worked for Smithfield, loading hogs onto trucks bound for the slaughterhouse. This was tough during the winter, he told me, when the animals didn’t want to leave the warm barns. “They are kind of like humans: Once they hit that cold weather, they say, ‘No, I ain’t got no business out here,’ ” he said. “You got to fight them things all night long, trying to keep them from coming back in their houses.”

Bennett has lived on the land since 1999. It once belonged to his grandparents and has been in family hands since the 1940s. When he bought the property from his aunt, he knew there was a swine CAFO next door. What he wasn’t prepared for was that the farm’s owner had recently bought the 47 acres behind him and had started spraying hog waste near their shared property line. “It’s got that stinking scent,” he told me. “You think something died and that they threw it out and let it rot.”

Rayford Bennett Sr. lives next to a CAFO farmer who sprays hog waste near their shared property line. “You think something died and that they threw it out and let it rot.”

Bennett first contacted the state’s environmental agency a few months after moving in. A government regulator wrote down, “He thought that the farm had been told not to use that field.” The agency called the farm owner and left a message, but public records don’t show whether the state followed up. When Bennett talked to his neighbor directly, he said, the farmer insisted that it was his prerogative to spray waste on the land. As children, he and the farmer had been playmates. “But then once he got into the hog business, I’m a peon and he’s a big shot,” Bennett said.

I left the farmer two voicemail messages, but he did not respond. I’m not naming him because—even though his farm has a 10,000-hog capacity—in reality he’s not a big shot. The pork companies, not individual growers, make most of the decisions about CAFO operations. Prestage Farms, with which the farmer contracts, also declined an interview request.

I was introduced to Bennettby White-Williamson of EJCAN. Her organization leads a “toxic tour” of the area, which sometimes stops at Bennett’s home. White-Williamson, 72, grew up in Sampson County before the hog industry’s expansion. She spent much of her career in Washington, DC, including a decade at the Environmental Protection Agency. She earned a law degree after retiring from the federal government, then moved home and cofounded EJCAN in 2020. “I thought it would probably take three or four years for us to really get off the ground,” she said. Just as EJCAN launched, a key issue demanded its attention: The CAFO industry was gearing up for biogas development.

At the center of this push is a $500 million joint venture between Smithfield and Dominion Energy called Align RNG (renewable natural gas), which operates in North Carolina, Virginia, Utah, and Arizona. The venture broke ground in 2019 on its biggest project to date: outfitting an estimated 19 farms in Sampson and Duplin Counties. The methane trapped at those farms will be piped to a central facility, purified, and injected into the existing gas pipeline. Align RNG says those farms will generate enough energy to power 4,000 homes. (North Carolina utilities need biogas because they face a state mandate to produce 0.2 percent of their electricity from swine waste.)

The hog industry calls biogas a win-win. So do some scientists and at least one green group, Environmental Defense Fund. Covering lagoons prevents methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from entering the atmosphere. The system, the industry claims, creates an energy source that reduces the need for fossil fuels. “We need to move the needle with respect to reducing emissions from animal agriculture,” said Frank Mitloehner, a professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis, and the director of its CLEAR Center, which works with the agriculture industry on environmental sustainability. “While this is not a silver bullet, I don’t think there are silver bullets. But it is one tool in the toolbox.” The CLEAR Center receives funding from the National Pork Board and a group connected to the meat companies Cargill, Tyson Foods, and Pilgrim’s.

Sherri White-Williamson of EJCAN advocates for residents impacted by CAFOs and connects them to educational, legal, and other forms of support.

The “Great Biogas Gusher,” as one booster called it, doesn’t look so promising to those battling North Carolina’s hog industry. “Proponents of biogas have done a good job of changing the conversation to make this sound like renewable natural gas,” White-Williamson said. “And who would be against renewable natural gas?” To her, projects like Align RNG’s will lay down a new energy infrastructure on top of an agricultural infrastructure that already burdens its Black, Latino, Indigenous, and poor neighbors. They’ll require new pipelines and processing facilities, while the CAFOs will still use uncovered “secondary” lagoons to store digested waste before it is sprayed onto fields. The Sierra Club and many other environmental advocacy groups consider biogas a form of greenwashing that does little to solve the air and water pollution problems from CAFO farming. (Sierra magazine is published by the Sierra Club.)

What’s more, capturing methane has pollution trade-offs. Ammonia emissions will increase—by a whopping amount, according to some studies—to the detriment of both human health and aquatic ecosystems. Some biogas skeptics question whether it will even deliver the promised climate benefits. Recent studies suggest that a significant amount of gas could leak from the supply chain. “When methane leaks are not addressed, biogas facilities can be more climate intensive than fossil-fuel-derived gas,” two North Carolina attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center wrote in a 2023 letter to the US Department of Agriculture.

Mitloehner called this an unfounded concern given the industry’s economic incentive to monitor and plug leaks. “Where there are areas of improvement to make it more airtight, we should definitely investigate those,” he said. “But let’s not throw the baby away with the bathwater.”

What worries critics most is that biogas development will lock in the lagoon-and-sprayfield system by surrounding it with the halo of what some consider green energy. That, in turn, could make it even harder to push for a transition to cleaner waste-disposal methods. “This is going to entrench this whole way of raising hogs,” Burdette said. “There’s going to be a lot of money spent to put these digesters on lagoons. There’s going to be a lot of money spent laying these pipelines. There’s going to be a lot of money made when Smithfield sells biogas to Dominion and other energy producers. It builds defenses around this industry: ‘Look at all this money we spent, and look at all this renewable energy.’ ”

The pork council argues that—biogas or not—the lagoon-and-sprayfield system is here to stay. “Adopting an ‘all or nothing’ approach to waste management hinders innovation and leaves farmers with little choice but to continue using the existing system,” Roy Lee Lindsey, the council’s CEO, said in an email.

Lagoons full of hog fecal waste in Rose Hill are covered to capture off-gassed methane.

In 2021 and 2022, EJCAN and Cape Fear River Watch teamed up to challenge North Carolina’s swine-waste biogas permits. Their legal complaints, filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, argued that state regulators were required to evaluate cleaner technologies before issuing the permits. An administrative law judge rejected the argument, as did an appellate court that reviewed one of the decisions.

The Southern Environmental Law Center got more traction with a federal civil rights complaint it filed against state regulators on behalf of the Duplin County NAACP and the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign. The center argued that the biogas permits cause disproportionate harm to communities of color. The EPA’s civil rights office agreed in 2022 to investigate the complaint, and now the parties are in informal talks.

Elaine Howard still loves the outdoors. She rakes the yard. She walks with her five chow chows. She tends her flowers. “It makes me relax,” she said.

She’s 66 and lives alone, though her relatives often visit and spend the night. At this point in her life, she’d rather live elsewhere. Howard imagines a home with more predictably pleasant air, where she won’t have to worry about water contamination. “I just can’t stand it no more,” she told me. “My son died. My husband died. I don’t have nothing to stay here for.”

When I met Howard the first time, her grandson, I’Vion Carr, was visiting. She floated the idea of moving away and renting the house. “It would be difficult to rent this place,” Carr told her. “Back there, you got the lagoon. You got the hog farm. . . . Would somebody really want to live here?”

“You can turn the air conditioner on and stay in your house,” Howard said.

“Yeah,” Carr responded. “But some people like to be outside.”

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