House passes Farm Act, which will fast-track controversial biogas projects

By: - June 25, 2021 8:04 am

Janet Melvin spoke last month before the Senate Agriculture committee in opposition to the Farm Act. Her husband, the Rev. Jimmy Melvin, who is behind her, is the pastor of Mt. Zion Church near Magnolia. (Screenshot from livestream)

Janet Melvin spoke last month before the Senate Agriculture committee in opposition to the Farm Act. Her husband, the Rev. Jimmy Melvin, who is behind her, is the pastor of Mt. Zion AMEZ Church near Magnolia in Sampson County. (Screenshot from livestream)

Rep. Jimmy Dixon calls agriculture “a whipping boy,” says opposition is unfair

Mt. Zion AMEZ Church sits a ways off the road, flanked by farm fields near the Sampson County town of Magnolia.

The small brick church, whose congregation is predominantly Black, is 100 years old. But its drinking water well is new.

Each of the past five years, the Sampson County Health Department has posted a sign on the church door warning people not to drink the water. Nor should the water be used to mix infant formula. Elderly people, the notice advised, should call their doctor.

High levels of nitrates had been detected in the water. Bottle-fed babies under six months old who drink high levels of nitrates can develop a serious, even fatal disorder that prevents the blood from carrying enough oxygen throughout the body. Adults who are exposed can develop anemia, heart and lung disease. Some studies suggest nitrates are associated with an increased risk of stomach cancer.

The source of the contamination is unknown, but nitrates are known to be present in waste, both animal and human. The church’s septic tank is behind the building, far from the drinking water well, which is in front. 

But hog waste from nearby farms — there are at least three — is sprayed on the fields that abut the church, the Rev. Jimmy Melvin told roughly 25 residents at a meeting of EJ CAN, a new environmental justice group, last week.

After relying solely on bottled water, the church scraped together $3,500 and paid for a new well, 300 feet deep.

The church had never called the health department about its water, said Danielle Melvin Koonce, the pastor’s daughter, so it’s unclear what prompted county officials to test it. “The health department knows something we don’t,” Koonce said.

The health department could not be reached for comment.

As if their water concerns weren’t enough, Mt. Zion AMEZ Church is also near the proposed route of a biogas pipeline that would capture methane from industrialized hog farms, then send it north to a gathering facility along NC Highway 24 on the Sampson County-Duplin County line.

Mt. Zion AME Church is off Taylors Bridge Highway, also known as U.S. 421, near Magnolia. This map shows the proximity of several hog farms to the church. A proposed biogas pipeline would also route nearby. (Map: NC DEQ Community Mapping System)

Last month, Rev. Melvin and his wife, Janet, addressed the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment committee about the church’s water problem and their opposition to the biogas provision in the Farm Act. The projected the pipeline route has been released, but Smithfield has refused to disclose the names of 15 of the 19 participating farms.

“I’m not against hog farmers,” Janet Melvin said at the hearing. “I am against secrecy and a lack of transparency.”

The thrust of the Farm Act, which passed the full House this week, is to fast-track as many biogas projects as possible. It would allow all biogas digesters to receive a general permit from North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality rather than an individual one; with a few exceptions, hog farms already receive a general permit for their other operations because they are so similar in function. However, opponents of general permits say the digester set-ups will differ from farm to farm, and should require individual permits.

The measure also sets a 90-day deadline for DEQ to grant or deny the permit; if the agency hasn’t made a determination by then, the permit automatically becomes effective. 

Proponents, among them Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy which plan to build out the vast network of biogas-producing farms, say these operations would allow farmers to earn extra income through the sale of the gas. And the digesters will capture methane, a potent greenhouse gas and major driver of climate change, and prevent it from entering the atmosphere. 

They claim that biogas operations will also help alleviate the odor and water quality issues associated with the existing open lagoon and spray field system. “It’s perplexing that environmental advocates would oppose this,” said Angie Maier, lobbyist for the NC Pork Council, at a recent House Agriculture Committee meeting.

While it is true that methane will be captured from lagoons at participating farms, the net decrease is unclear. Because the EPA doesn’t designate most industrialized hog farms as “stationary” methane sources, like industrial plants, there are no precise emissions measurements, only estimates. 

The net decrease in methane is important, because most farms will still emit methane from a secondary lagoon. 

Biogas operations often use a dual lagoon system: One is covered and captures the methane. But a second, uncovered lagoon catches overflow feces and urine, which emits the greenhouse gas. 

Waste from the uncovered lagoon is then sprayed on farm fields, like the ones next to Mt. Zion, where it seeps into the soil and can reach the groundwater. Depending on the depth, age and location of a well, the contamination can flow beneath the ground and infiltrate the drinking water.

A biogas system, while ostensibly reducing methane emissions, still does not solve the decades-old water problem for the neighbors of the 2,200 industrialized hog farms in North Carolina. And many of those neighbors are Black. In Mt. Zion’s census block, 66% are people of color and more than half are low-income.

Rep. Raymond Smith Jr., a Democrat representing Sampson and Wayne counties (Photo: NCGA)

During a contentious final vote on the House floor yesterday, Rep. Raymond Smith Jr., a Democrat representing Sampson and Wayne counties who had attended the meeting at Mt. Zion Church, moved to strip the biogas section entirely.

“It’s a very egregious part of the bill,” Smith said. “A general permit is not necessary; the permits should be individual. These hog farms are typically in African American communities. Removing provision would be the right thing to do.”

The amendment failed along party lines.

“Many of us think we have a great system already in place,” said Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a farmer from Duplin County. “But we recognize incremental improvements can provide great opportunities. I beg you to vote for this bill.”

State Rep. Pricey Harrison, who has family in the hog farming business, said on the House floor that she originally planned to support the bill. I thought it made sense to put a tarp on the lagoons.”

“Then I started doing a deep dive talking with people living nearby and their health concerns, about their air and water, and feces on the side of their homes,” said Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat. “I wanted to vote for the Farm Act but there are so many problems and no oversight protections.”

Dixon responded by asking Harrison for the names and addresses of people who had complained about feces on the exterior of their homes. “It hurts me, unfair opposition. Agriculture is the whipping boy all the time,” Dixon said. “It’s not true [about the feces.]”

(During the nuisance lawsuit trials in federal court, neighbors testified their yards and even they themselves had been sprayed; an environmental engineer testified that fecal bacteria present in hogs had been detected on the sides of several homes.)

Harrison declined to name the people publicly. “I don’t feel comfortable doing that without their permission,” she said.

Rep. Kandie D. Smith, a Democrat from Pitt County (Photo: NCGA)

Democrat Kandie Smith represents Pitt County, a major hog-producing area. “I represent farmers and neighbors, but I can’t support one without the other,” Smith said, adding she had contacted Smithfield to meet with neighbors. “The request was denied.”

“This bill adversely affects minority populations,” said Smith, who is Black. “It’s very alarming to see that these possible pipelines will go through minority communities. Unfortunately the whipping boy happens to be the neighbors — neighbors who look like me.”

The House passed the Farm Act, 75-32. All Republicans voted for it, plus 14 Democrats. There were 13 excused absences.

Although the bill has passed both chambers, the House Ag Committee stripped it of a section that would have weakened workers’ ability to sue their employers. Because of the change, the bill heads back to the Senate for concurrence. Rep. Dixon assured his House colleagues that the workers’ section would not be in the final bill. It is likely that the governor would veto the measure if it were included.

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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.