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Biogas Plan for North Carolina Hog Waste Amounts to Greenwashing, Critics Say

A project planned by agribusiness giant Smithfield Foods will turn hog waste into biogas, but nearby North Carolina residents and advocates oppose the development, saying it raises serious environmental justice issues.

“Smithfield touts this biogas scheme as a green energy solution that should be welcomed by the community, but critics say it is a classic case of greenwashing, intended to burnish the image of a company that has for years been the source of rampant water, soil, and air pollution in the region,” reports Yale Environment 360.

The waste generated by industrial hog farms is stored in football-field sized waste lagoons before being sprayed on crop fields as fertilizer. The surrounding area’s residents—often members of low-income communities of colour—suffer from the ensuing health risks and reduced quality of living caused by polluted groundwater, noxious gases, and foul odours.

Now, Smithfield plans to install biodigesters at 19 facilities in North Carolina’s Duplin and Sampson counties. “Methane captured from the waste pits will be transported through a 48-kilometre pipeline and processed in a new anaerobic digester system before being injected into an existing natural gas pipeline,” says Yale 360.

Smithfield is promoting the project for its potential to power 3,500 homes and offer hog farmers an additional revenue source. However, the process will concentrate waste that can lead to severe groundwater pollution, and facilities will potentially expose nearby families to “even more air pollutants, including ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, and various volatile organic compounds.”

“This [process] does very little to address many of the known harms… and poses a higher risk because the waste stream itself is more potent,” said Will Hendrick, environmental justice advocate with the North Carolina Conservation Network. 

Smithfield’s plan also fails to comply with an agreement it made with the state in 2000 in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd, which drowned thousands of pigs and caused waste to overflow from storage lagoons. The agreement required the corporation to “finance research into alternatives to the lagoons and to install within three years whatever system emerged as environmentally effective and economically viable,” but no such changes have been implemented yet, reports ProPublica. 

The increasing frequency and intensity of storms puts nearby residents at continued risk from overflows like those that followed Hurricane Floyd, reports Yale 360. Furthermore, malfunctions could cause fires and explosions from the pipelines that will be installed through surrounding communities.

After two years of pushback delayed Smithfield’s plan, the state governor signed an act legalizing the project this past July over the objections of environmental advocates. Despite the concerns expressed by local opponents, the act “includes a provision to fast-track future biogas permits with no requirement for public participation, public hearings, or public comments,” says Yale 360. State Republicans are also working to expedite development by introducing House Bill 271, which will allow corporations to use eminent domain to install pipelines on private property without a landowner’s consent.