The Environmental Protection Agency has notified North Carolina civil rights groups that it will investigate whether state regulators discriminated against communities of color when they approved four applications to convert hog waste into fuel.
The Jan. 13 letter, from EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office, came two days after a state administrative-law judge upheld the same permits.
Industrial-scale hog farming has been a contentious issue in North Carolina, the country’s No. 2 state for swine production. Advocates describe the industry as an economic engine that rescued the state’s coastal plain after tobacco farming declined in the late 20th century. Critics describe the waste-disposal system—in which urine and feces are stored in open pits called “lagoons” and then sprayed onto farm fields as fertilizer—as antiquated and noxious. Waste from these farms has contaminated nearby streams and rivers, and neighbors complain of stenches, flies, buzzards, and truck traffic. In 2020 Smithfield Foods, the largest player in the state’s hog industry, settled a cluster of lawsuits filed by neighbors who said these nuisances made their daily lives intolerable.
The newest developments stem from a joint venture by Smithfield and Dominion Energy to capture methane from hog waste, break it down by anaerobic digestion, and then pipe it to a central facility, where it will be refined into biogas. (The industry prefers the term “renewable natural gas.”) The leftover waste material will be stored in “secondary lagoons” before being applied to fields.
Smithfield and Dominion say methane from 19 farms will produce enough energy to power 4,500 homes and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 157,000 tons a year. Boosters call biogas production a win for both agriculture and the environment. “The opportunity to capture methane gas and generate renewable energy is another financial tool that will benefit our farmers,” Duplin County Commissioner Elwood Garner, who raises hogs for Smithfield, said at a public hearing last year. “That will help us remain in business and continue to do the noble work of feeding a hungry world.”
But environmental and civil-rights groups say the secondary lagoons will release more ammonia into the atmosphere than conventional pits, threatening both air and water quality. What’s more, they say, as climate change brings more intense storms to the region, the secondary lagoons will be vulnerable to structural failure and flooding.
Last September, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed a civil-rights complaint with the EPA on behalf of the Duplin County branch of the state NAACP and the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign. The complaint alleged that North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) jeopardized residents of color when it authorized anaerobic digesters at four hog farms. A 2014 University of North Carolina study concluded that Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans are more likely than whites to live within three miles of the state’s large swine operations.
This disparate impact, said SELC, violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination in any program that receives federal funds.
“DEQ wholly failed to protect the environment and protect nearby communities from pollution and adverse health risks,” said SELC attorney Blakely Hildebrand. The four permits, she added, signal a bigger issue for the future: North Carolina’s 2021 Farm Act requires state regulators to develop a fast-tracked general permit for any livestock operation that wants to develop a biogas system. “We’re asking the EPA not just to look at those four permits, but to look forward,” Hildebrand said.
The EPA’s Jan. 13 letter does not acknowledge a problem. Rather, it accepts the civil-rights complaint for investigation and urges the parties to resolve the problem informally if possible. In 2018, DEQ settled another Title VI complaint over industrial hog farming, promising to improve public participation and better monitor the air, water, and disparate racial impacts.
William Barber III, who co-chairs the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign’s ecological justice subcommittee, called the EPA’s latest letter an encouraging sign. “It is really demonstrative of the critical need for these permits to be evaluated with the strictest lens,” he said. “In the middle of a global climate crisis, where we very much need to put forth robust and effective solutions, we cannot do that at the expense of environmental justice.”
DEQ spokeswoman Sharon Martin, in an email, said her agency was reviewing the EPA letter. “We have given significant priority to compliance with Title VI requirements particularly with regard to animal waste permitting,” she wrote. Before issuing the permits, she added, DEQ conducted “enhanced public outreach” and published a 21-page economic-justice analysis.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 11, a state administrative law judge ruled in DEQ’s favor in a second challenge that SELC filed on behalf of two environmental groups. The state challenge did not hinge on civil-rights issues. The judge, Donald van der Vaart, ruled that some of North Carolina’s broad water-protection laws did not apply to animal operations, which the legislature declared provide “significant economic and other benefits.” As the head of DEQ from 2015 to 2017, under Republican Governor Pat McCrory, Van der Vaart was outspoken about his opposition to “onerous” regulations and the “job-killing climate change agenda.”