The Pulse

Cardinal Bio-Energy, Smithfield withdraw plan for swine gas operations in Northampton County

By: - May 15, 2023 12:45 pm
Kraig Westerbeek, vice president of Smithfield Renewables and Joe Birschbach of Cardinal Bio-Energy

Kraig Westerbeek, vice president of Smithfield Renewables (left) and Joe Birschbach of Cardinal Bio-Energy addressed the Northampton County Commission in March and April about two proposed swine gas projects.(Screenshot from Northampton County Commission livestream)

Smithfield Foods and its affiliate Cardinal Bio-Energy have withdrawn their application to build two large swine gas projects in Northampton County, according to emails obtained by NC Newsline.

The companies had applied to county officials for a special use permit that would have allowed them to install methane capture systems at several Smithfield-owned facilities: on Spud’s Lane between Seaboard and Pleasant Hill, and on Barrow Road in Garysburg, near the Virginia border. From there, the swine gas would be trucked to a processing plant and injected into the Transco line, Joe Birschbach of Cardinal Bio-Energy told the Northampton County Commission in March.

Earlier this month, Birschbach notified the county via email that the companies were withdrawing the application. “We find it necessary to take more time to address information requests made by the County Board at the prior meeting, improve our understanding/progress in planning an informational meeting (also requested by the County at the prior meeting), and improve our understanding of applicable zoning standards,” Birschbach wrote. “We appreciate time taken to date and look forward to resuming project efforts as soon as determined feasible.”

At the March meeting, more than 100 residents packed the commission chambers to hear about the proposal. Several people said they only recently learned of Smithfield’s plans. Adjacent landowners had been notified, as required by law. “We haven’t been trying to hide it,” Kraig Westerbeek, vice president of Smithfield Renewables, told the commission. “But we’ve not reached out to the community.”

In April, county commissioners had more questions about the proposal — questions that company officials either would not or could not answer. Commissioners also asked the companies to hold community meetings this month in areas where the swine gas projects would be built. “We’ll take that under advisement,” Westerbeek responded.

To capture methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from swine waste lagoons, farms cap them in a process known as anaerobic digestion. From there, the methane is piped to a collection system. Depending on the farm, the gas can be used onsite for electricity, or sent via pipeline or by truck to an upgrading facility. Once the impurities are removed, the swine gas is injected into a natural gas pipeline.

However, these operations still present environmental impacts. While it is true that some methane is be captured from capped lagoons, at least one is uncovered and used for excess feces and urine. Methane is still emitted from that lagoon. The farms also still spray the waste on nearby fields, which creates odor. That waste can also seep into the groundwater and eventually, into drinking water wells.

Ammonia concentrations can also increase from the caps, Blakely Hildebrand, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the commission in March.

Cardinal Bio-Energy has a second major project planned for Robeson County, NC Newsline reported last month. It received Utilities Commission approval to participate in a pilot program, allowing it to sell swine gas from 15 Robeson County farms, although it has not disclosed the location or names of the farms.  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.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality would be in charge of issuing state permits for the project.

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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.