Smithfield, Dominion propose major swine gas project, but details are secret, troubling residents

By: - November 16, 2020 6:00 am
Source: Align RNG

Public hearing on Align RNG air permit set for this afternoon

Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy plan to deploy 30 miles of underground pipeline in Sampson and Duplin counties, part of a controversial project to buy methane generated by area hog farms and inject it into a larger system owned by Piedmont Natural Gas.

In and of itself, decreasing methane emissions in the atmosphere isn’t controversial. Such reductions are key to curbing climate change because methane is even more potent in heating the planet than carbon dioxide. And the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (REPS) requires investor-owned utilities to generate or buy a minute amount of their power — just 0.07% —  from swine and poultry waste, based on the previous year’s retail electricity sales.

But key details of the $30 million proposal, billed as the largest swine waste-to-energy project in North Carolina, have been kept secret, even from state regulators. Nor is the energy completely “clean.” A central gas collection facility on the Duplin-Sampson county line would emit more than 60 tons of pollution each year, according to the draft air permit submitted to the Division of Air Quality.

While the participating farms, 19 so far, would cover their lagoons to capture the methane, it is yet unclear to what extent that would control emissions.

Community members, most of them Black or Latinx, who have lived with the stench of these hog farms for decades, are unimpressed. They say Smithfield has long refused to adopt advanced waste management technologies to replace the outdated open lagoon and spray field system. Now, many residents say,  the company is monetizing the their misery. “They say there is no harm because they’re covering the lagoons,” said Elsie Herring, one of dozens of plaintiffs suing Smithfield in federal court for nuisance related to odor, flies, vultures and truck traffic at the farms. “But this just enables them to do business as usual.”

This is what we do know, based an air permit application to the Division of Air Quality:

  • Align RNG, a new business venture between Smithfield and Dominion, plans to build a gas “conditioning” facility adjacent to the Murphy-Brown feed mill along NC Highway 24 between Turkey and Warsaw. That facility must acquire an air permit from the state.
  • The conditioning facility will collect methane from 19 farms in the region through a 30-mile pipeline network. Align RNG will then upgrade the methane so that it can be injected into to a Piedmont Natural Gas pipeline. There, the biogas will mix with natural gas and send the product through its pipeline to customers, which could include Duke Energy. Align RNG estimates the methane could power the equivalent of 3,500 homes annually.
  • The pipeline will be “low-pressure,” 10 pounds per square inch, compared to 200 to 1,500 pounds per square inch for conventional natural gas pipelines. The diameter of the pipeline will vary from 4 to 12 inches.
  • The farms must purchase, operate and maintain the technology to cover their lagoons. Anaerobic digestion — meaning without oxygen — will be used to generate and capture the methane from the lagoons. The farms can then sell the gas to Align RNG. 
  • Each year Align RNG’s conditioning facility will emit 50 tons of sulfur dioxide. A component of acid rain, sulfur dioxide also can harm the respiratory system and worsen asthma. It also contributes to the formation of fine particulate matter, another pollutant that can damage the lungs. Long-term exposure to fine particulate matter, PM 2.5, has been associated with an increase in the death rate from COVID-19. The facility is also projected to emit 10 tons of carbon monoxide.

However, Align RNG has not disclosed the names or locations of the 19 farms that are participating the its project, the number of lagoons, the exact pipeline route, or the company’s expansion plans. A Division of Air Quality spokeswoman confirmed that state officials don’t know which farms will connect to the pipeline.

Aaron Ruby, spokesman for Align RNG, did not answer questions about these issues, including why the locations have not been publicized, but in an email to Policy Watch, he called the project a “transformational opportunity for North Carolina.

“We’re not only reducing farm emissions, we’re also providing clean energy for consumers and generating income for family farmers. So whether you look at it from the standpoint of the climate, consumers or farmers, it’s a very positive thing,” Ruby wrote.

Even the US Army Corps of Engineers, the federal regulator over impacts to streams and wetlands, redacted not only the latitude and longitude coordinates for several of the farms, but also for the potentially affected waterways. Policy Watch asked the Corps to explain the redactions, but the person in charge of the decision was out of the office.

Yet piecing together the available public documents and reading redactions that were poorly done, Policy Watch was able to analyze the proposed pipeline route and search for farms that were within the path. (According to public documents, the proposed route — which was laid out a year ago — would require easements from 75 property owners; depending on those negotiations the route could be altered.)

In addition, participating farms must notify the Division of Water Resources of modifications to their lagoon and spray field systems, including anaerobic digesters. According to a DWR spokesman, four farms have done so. None of them are independently owned, but instead are corporate farms owned and operated by Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield:

  • M&M Waters Farm and Benson Farm in Duplin County, which raise more than 10,000 hogs.
  • Kilpatrick Farm 1,2,4 & 5, Merritt Farm, and Farm 2037 and 2038 in Sampson County, accounting for more than 38,000 hogs.

The Corps of Engineers documents also list several farms that have asked for a preliminary “jurisdictional determination” as to whether the streams or wetlands on the property are subject to federal regulation if the pipeline is built. Most were redacted, but HD3 Farms of the Carolinas on Cornwallis Road in Sampson County, and DM3 Farms of Rose Hill are listed; together they are permitted by the state to raise more than 18,600 hogs.

In addition to the lack of transparency about the pipeline route and the participating farms, Align RNG has petitioned the NC Utilities Commission to exempt the project from certain safety regulations. The commission had asked whether Align RNG and its contract farmers would be willing to allow it or the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to “inspect and regulate the proposed 30 miles of gathering system pipeline for safety purposes.”

According to commission documents, Align RNG responded that it would comply with state law regarding pipeline signage for potential excavators, as well as join the 8-1-1 “Call Before You Dig” program. Otherwise, Align RNG argued that it is not subject to the commission’s Pipeline Safety Section or federal oversight because its pipeline network doesn’t qualify as a “regulated onshore gathering line.” Such gathering lines are in federal law, but their definition relies on one written by the American Petroleum Institute.

The blue circles represent farms closes to the pipeline route; however, these farms have not been confirmed as participating in the project. The black circles show the location of confirmed farms. Of the 19, less than a half-dozen have been mentioned in public documents. Two farms aren’t shown because they are beyond the pipeline and map boundaries in Duplin County. (Base map and pipeline route: Land Management Group, submitted to the US Army Corps of Engineers; farm locations based on DEQ mapping tool and documents, and USACE filings)

Residents: Capturing methane doesn’t cure the hog problem

Danielle Koonce is a rarity in Sampson County. She grew up here, then moved out of state. And then she returned home.

A native of Garland, Koonce is one of five children, all of whom went to college. After earning two advanced degrees from East Carolina University, she is now pursing a doctorate at the University of Maryland; her dissertation focuses on environmental racism and injustice in Sampson County. She and her husband and three children, ages 6, 4 and 10 months, moved to Roseboro earlier this year.

“It’s a big slap in the face,” Koonce said of the biogas project. “They’re doing this to a group of people fighting COVID and socio-economic challenges.”

When Koonce was in college, she occasionally brought friends back to Sampson County for a visit. “They’d say, ‘Ooh, what’s that smell?'” Koonce recalls.

The odor came from the hog lagoons.

“We still don’t know the full extent of the effect of the lagoons on groundwater, health, the land around us,” Koonce said. “Rather than fixing the problem, they’re profiting from it.”

North Carolina’s 4,100 hog lagoons hold more than 10 billion gallons of feces and urine, a significant source of methane. (Cattle and landfills are other primary sources.) Methane is also the main component of conventional natural gas — most of it extracted from beneath the ground via fracking — used to heat homes, cook food and dry clothes.

Several of the state’s 10 swine biogas projects already generate power for use on the farm; others sell a small amount of power to a utility or electric cooperative. But what distinguishes the Align RNG project is its scale and centralized operation. The only project that approximates Align’s proposal is in Magnolia, where Optima KV produces biogas at five farms in Kenansville, in Duplin County, for sale to Duke Energy. But those farms are contiguous, not spread across two counties.

To capture the gas, the farms contracted with Align RNG would cover their lagoons with a rubber tarp. The waste then decomposes without oxygen and creates methane-rich biogas. The gas is then dried in a separate piece of equipment — hog waste is runnier than cow and poultry manure — and transported via piping to the network and onto to Align RNG’s facility. The distance between the farm and Align RNG varies: One participating farm is about a mile from the facility, but the farthest afield is 19 miles, according to state documents. The farms themselves don’t need a state air quality permit; and a provision in 2018 legislation exempts these operations from odor rules.

Once at Align, the gas will be upgraded to meet specifications set by Piedmont Natural Gas, and injected into its existing pipeline where it will mix with fracked gas and be sold to Duke Energy.

The quality and composition of the biogas arriving at Align RNG would vary depending on the weather — warmer is better for anaerobic digestion — age of the animals, farm management practices and other factors. Tail gas, which contains little methane, is scrubbed of most, but not all, of its hydrogen sulfide — a toxic air pollutant responsible for the “rotten egg” smell, and run through a flare. (Landfills that capture methane for energy use similar flaring technology.)

Sherri White-Williamson, environmental justice policy director with the NC Conservation Network (Photo: NCCN)

If the biogas doesn’t meet PSNC’s quality standards, it also will be flared. In the case of extreme weather, such as hurricanes, or equipment malfunction, gas would also be flared or the process shut down altogether, as many as 25 days each year. Flaring is not optimal. Although flares curb methane, they still emit carbon dioxide. As for the gathering lines, they can also leak methane. A Division of Air Quality spokeswoman told Policy Watch that the Align RNG facility, while it won’t have someone onsite 24 hours a day, would be equipped with pressure technology that can be accessed remotely and detect leaks. It’s unclear, though, how quickly those leaks could be repaired.

“This project could make pollution even worse,” said Blakely Hildebrand, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, “in terms of the chemical processes of the lagoon and the transport of the gas. And what are the air emissions at the individual farm level? DEQ has to do more due diligence before approving the permit. It’s really imperative that they get it right.”

Sampson and Duplin county residents are already burdened with emissions from the hog lagoons and landfills, as well as groundwater and drinking water issues. The Murphy-Brown Feed Mill in Warsaw emits air pollutants, as does another such mill in Turkey. Within the census block that includes the proposed Align RNG facility, two-thirds of the population is Black or Latinx, according to census data. Sixty percent of the households are below the federal poverty level. In terms of health factors, state data show that Sampson County ranks 82nd of North Carolina’s 100 counties; Duplin is 86th. Both counties have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, ranking among the hardest-hit in cases per capita.

Sherri White-Williamson lives in Sampson County and is the environmental justice policy director for the NC Conservation Network. (She also sits on the state’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, but talked to Policy Watch outside that role.) She said few people are aware of the magnitude of the project, even though it’s been planned for several years. “They don’t understand what the impact is, or know what it could mean,” said White-Williamson, who previously worked at the EPA on environmental justice issues.

Since people lack all of the information about the project, including the location of the farms and how potential pipeline leaks will be addressed, it will be difficult to meaningfully comment on the proposal, she said. “What was the intent to put the facility here without giving the community information,” she said.

Shaky economics for the farmers

Align RNG is touting its sizable economic investment in Duplin and Sampson counties. However, only 2.5 full-time jobs would be created; the other 25 to 30 positions would be temporary, building the digesters on the individual farms. As for the contract farmers, they have to pay for their own digesters, dryers, and interconnection, which can exceed $500,000 — an enormous sum for a farmer who is already in debt.

Aaron Ruby, the Align RNG spokesman, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers grants and loan guarantees to help offset the cost of the technology. However, depending on the grant, the range varies, from as little as $2,500 to $500,000. To qualify for a grant, the farmer must provide at least 75% of the project cost; the terms of a loan are more generous, with the farmer responsible for just 25% of the cost. (Optima KV received a $6.5 million USDA loan guarantee for its biogas project, but that money was not for individual farmers.)

The steep cost of installing the equipment has thus far hindered individual farmers’ ability to generate biogas from their farms. In 2007, the legislature passed a law, signed by Gov. Easley, that established the Swine Farm Methane Capture Pilot Program. Within a year, 218 swine farms had registered for the program, 185 of them corporate farms owned by Murphy-Brown. The remaining 33 farms were owned by farmers who had contracts with major hog producers. But there was a hitch: only farms served by electric public utilities, such as Duke and Dominion, were eligible to participate, according to a report to the Environmental Review Commission. As a result, the 185 farms quickly dwindled to 47; the rest were served by electric cooperatives, and thus not eligible for the program.

Former state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird was on a committee that worked on the pilot program legislation. She told Policy Watch that infrastructure costs, even with generous subsidies, were too high for most farmers, and hindered participation. After three years, no eligible swine farm had notified the state that they had entered into an agreement with a public utility.

Meanwhile, without farmers to generate the biogas, investor-owned utilities couldn’t meet their swine and poultry waste benchmarks established by the REPS; in 2012, that figure was just 0.07% of the total previous year’s retail electricity sales. The NC Utilities Commission delayed the deadline several times. By 2018, the expectations for public utilities were even lower — just 0.02%. This year, the threshold returned to 0.07% but it’s unclear if the utilities can achieve it.

Align RNG has plans to launch similar projects in Virginia and Utah. If the demand is high enough, more methane could be diverted from the atmosphere. But there could be collateral damage to the residents of Sampson and Duplin counties: an expansion of the state’s hog industry, which is currently capped under a 20-year moratorium. “I’m concerned Smithfield is going to use demand to get the legislature to repeal it,” said Elsie Herring. “The energy is renewable only as long as you have animals to produce the waste. They need to take the impact of these facilities out of our communities.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.