Hog industry plans major new biogas project in Robeson County, but details are elusive
Local residents demand more transparency from Utilities Commission
The U.S. Supreme Court today dismissed a challenge to a California law that will impact North Carolina hog farms. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
In any given year, roughly 300,000 hogs are born, weaned, fattened and slaughtered in Robeson County. During their short lifetimes, the animals excrete about 333 million gallons of feces and urine that percolates in open-air lagoons.
The rancid cesspools and vast fields where the waste is sprayed are poorly suited for the terrain. Dimpled with swamps and grooved in the curlicues of the Lumber River, the land is vulnerable to flooding and hurricanes – more so since the glut of greenhouse gas emissions has altered the world’s climate.
Biogas is touted by major pork producers as a solution for the industry’s enormous methane problem. By capping lagoons, capturing the methane and injecting it into a pipeline to generate electricity, the industry contends it can curb emissions from the potent greenhouse gas.
However, as NC Newsline has previously reported, swine biogas systems are deficient, at least in North Carolina, in part because the extra waste still flows into a second open-air lagoon and is sprayed on fields. Fecal contamination seeps into the groundwater; methane and ammonia from those sources still enters the air, unabated.
Another problem is the lack of transparency about participating farms, which makes their success or failure difficult to track.
A planned expansion in southeastern NC
Last August, the North Carolina Utilities Commission approved a request by Cardinal Bio-Energy, an affiliate of Smithfield Foods and Roeslein Alternative Energy in Missouri, to participate in a biogas pilot program in Robeson County.
The program, which has been deployed in several southeastern counties, was implemented by the Utilities Commission in June 2018, at the behest of Piedmont Natural Gas, a business unit of Duke Energy. Eleven companies have received Commission approval to join the pilot, including several that plan to convert landfill gas to energy.
As for Cardinal, it plans to sell swine gas from 15 Robeson County farms, although it has not disclosed the location or names of the farms.
Two of the company’s top officials, Chris Roach and Joe Birschbach, did not respond to multiple emails seeking further information.
Utilities Commission filings, though, show that the prospective farms are all near Maxton, near the Robeson-Scotland County line. All of the communities in this area are predominantly non-white, low-income, or both.
The company is “also evaluating the viability of three program expansion phases” in the Maxton-Laurinburg area, according to Utilities Commission documents, that if launched would incorporate as many as 28 additional farms.
Cardinal would harvest the gas from covered lagoons, inject it into an underground pipeline and route it to an upgrading facility at one of the farms.
The company would then truck the compressed natural gas to an injection point in the Piedmont pipeline – also at an undisclosed site – near Laurinburg, in Scotland County. Those neighborhoods are also primarily non-white and low-income.
Cardinal is expected to start operations later this year, although the company has not applied for a state permit for the biogas systems, according to a spokesman for the NC Department of Environmental Quality.
Nor has the company filed for an air permit for the upgrading facility, according to DEQ records.
The biodigester and air permits would trigger a public comment period and likely a public hearing, held by DEQ.
(Cardinal has proposed another project for two farms in Northampton County, unrelated to the pilot program. Residents became aware of the proposal only because the farms will require special use permits approved and issued by the county.
County commissioners have yet to vote on the permits and have asked Cardinal and Smithfield to hold a community meeting about the plan. At a meeting last month, Kraig Westerbeek of Smithfield/Cardinal said the companies would take that recommendation “under advisement.” So far, no meeting has been announced.)
Robeson residents call for process and transparency
Cardinal’s plans for Robeson County – and the pilot program itself – surprised many local residents, who said the Utilities Commission should hold public hearings and meetings about the pilot program and the individual projects.
“This massive buildout of methane gas from industrial animal operations raises serious questions related to the responsibility to inform and engage communities in their right and responsibility to know about major development projects that impact our entire landscape, our health, and our quality of life,” said Mac Legerton, a member of the SouthEast Coalition for Clean Energy, based in Robeson County.
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Learn more about the biogas pilot program
The Utilities Commission has approved, or is considering the applications of, these companies for the biogas pilot program. However, most of the projects aren’t operating; some have not been built yet.
In most cases, the gas would be sold and injected into pipelines owned by Piedmont Natural Gas, a business entity of Duke Energy.
Click on the name of each company to go to its Utilities Commission filings.
Optima KV • Magnolia
Optima TH • Smithfield slaughter plant in Tar Heel, Bladen County
C2e Renewables • Duplin County
Align RNG • Sampson County
GESS International* • Bladen, Columbus, Robeson, Union, Wilson
Montauk • Sampson County
Cardinal Bio-energy • Robeson and Scotland Counties
*Includes some “green” feedstock, such as grasses
Catawba Biogas • Anson County
Charlotte Bioenergy • Mecklenburg County (applied in March)
Foothills Renewables • Caldwell County
Anson Gas Producers • Anson County
INGENCO • Tuscarora Landfill, Craven County
Lightning Renewables • East Carolina Regional Landfill, Bertie County
Terreva • Catawba and Wayne counties (applied in January)
This link will take you to the Utilities Commission docket where all documents related to the pilot program are filed. Here is a link to Piedmont’s biogas reports.
The Utilities Commission began discussing the pilot program in late 2016, as the pork industry ramped up its technology to convert swine gas to energy. Duke Energy needed alternative forms of gas to meet its requirements under the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard.
For example, the REPS, as it’s known, became state law in 2007, and requires investor-owned utilities to get a small percentage of their power from swine waste; after several delays in implementing the requirement, it is now 0.2%. Gov. Cooper’s Clean Energy Plan also endorses swine waste-to-energy biogas.
The Commission approved the pilot in the summer of 2018 to address concerns by Piedmont that biogas, which, unprocessed, contains impurities not present in fracked gas, could corrode its pipelines or provide uneven heating power.
Over the next three years, Piedmont and companies in the pilot program – who were subject to Commission approval – were to gather and report data about their operations to help inform future standards for biogas.
But in 2021, just two companies had begun selling gas to Piedmont: Optima TH, which uses waste from Smithfield’s Tar Heel slaughter plant, and Optima KV, which collects swine gas from five farms.
Piedmont argued that there was still too little data to set a standard; the commission agreed, and extended the pilot for another three years, until 2024.
The Commission held these discussions, documented in thousands of pages of public filings, with the companies, their lawyers, and in some meetings, the North Carolina Pork Council and the NC Sustainable Energy Association. However, it is not legally required to hold public hearings or meetings about the status of the pilot program, according to Sam Watson, a spokesperson for the Public Staff, which represents ratepayers in Commission decisions.
For people accustomed to DEQ’s public hearing and comment periods – though community members have complained they are flawed, at least they exist – the relative opacity of the commission is disturbing.
“A community’s right and responsibility to know, along with a commitment to environmental justice, don’t start after there is harmful exposure and release of contamination in our communities,” Legerton said. “They don’t start during a permitting process involving toxic threats. They start with the proposed siting of polluting industries in our communities. That’s what is missing here and has been for over six years.”
The Commission does conduct public hearings for proposed rate increases and formal complaints lodged by ratepayers. Its presentations, such as the one held about Duke Energy’s widespread rolling blackouts last December, are also public.
Under a bill introduced in the legislature, the Commission would have additional responsibilities to inform the public about issues such as the pilot program. Although House Bill 689 has slim chances of passing, it would require the Commission and seven state agencies to consider “cumulative environmental burdens” when making decisions about “the environment, energy, climate, public health projects, facilities and infrastructure and associated funding.”
The measure also would also require the Commission and the covered state agencies to meaningfully engage with the public “as it evaluates new and existing activities and programs.”
Legerton noted that in the late 1980s, the state legislature established a temporary Hazardous Waste Management Commission when Scotland and Robeson counties were potential sites for a hazardous waste treatment facility. A separate commission was established to address concerns over a proposed low-level radioactive waste operation that would have been located in either Richmond or Chatham counties.
Both commissions held regular meetings and public hearings in the impacted areas about the proposal. “All aspects of the proposed projects were discussed,” Legerton said, including environmental and public health issues, corporate track records, and details of the operations.
The commissions canceled both projects, Legerton said, in large part because of “an informed public and research on alternate, cheaper, safer, and more effective methods of operation.”
Currently, the only way for the public to learn about the pilot biogas program is to comb through the Utilities Commission’s cumbersome website. Even then, some key information is missing. The Commission last year ordered participants in the pilot to submit periodic status reports. The first one was due no later than Feb. 1.
Two companies, Cardinal and C2e, did not file by the deadline. None of the RNG suppliers are exempt from the reporting requirement, said Sam Watson of the Public Staff.
A new round of status reports are due in August.
Public input session on animal feeding operations general permits
Tuesday, May 9, 6-9 p.m.
Sampson County Expo Center, Heritage Hall
414 Warsaw Road, Clinton, NC 28328
Public comment period runs through June 5.
This input session and the public comment period are part of the five-year renewal process for general permits governing swine, cattle and poultry (that manage wet litter) farms, and digester systems at these facilities.
Here is a list of the 17 farms that are permitted to have digesters. However, that doesn’t mean the farms are producing biogas, only that they are allowed to do so. The digester permits are also the focus of a civil rights complaint filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center with the EPA. The complaint, which the EPA accepted, is in negotiation.
To comment via email or phone:
Animal Feeding Operations,
NC Division of Water Resources
1636 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-1636
Email: [email protected]
The public input and comments will be considered in developing draft permits. Four more public meetings will be held this fall on the drafts.
Final permits go into effect on Oct. 1, 2024.
Find more info at the DEQ website.
This is the first of several stories about environmental justice issues and cumulative pollution impacts in Robeson County. Funding for this project comes from Kozik Environmental Justice Reporting Grants funded by the National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute.
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