The Pulse

Hog farm that used dead pigs, spoiled meat as fuel for biogas digester fined $34K

By: - December 6, 2022 2:15 pm


This photo, taken by the Neuse Riverkeeper and Tar-Pamlico Riverkeeper on Aug. 23, shows the digester operating in violation of the farm’s permit three months after the original disaster. (Courtesy photo)

Millions of gallons of feces, liquified hogs and old meat illegally discharged from a lagoon into wetlands and the Nahunta Swamp.

Levels of ammonia in the groundwater at more than 17 times legal limits.

Failure to monitor or provide reports for fecal coliform, as well as for operation and maintenance.

These are just three of the 15 environmental violations amassed this year by White Oak Farms in Fremont, a former hog operation that generated biogas in an anaerobic digester, state documents show.

Yesterday the NC Department of Environmental Quality fined the Wayne County farm just $34,520.

Last May the farm reported to DEQ that the cover of the 970,000-gallon anaerobic digester ruptured, sending millions of gallons of foam — essentially liquified animals, manure and meat — into nearby wetlands. However, later in the summer during a routine flyover, Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop noticed the farm was still apparently violating the terms of its permit and notified state officials. The News & Observer first reported on the incident in late August.

In June 2019, the farm began legally operating a biodigester to capture the methane from that hog waste. In turn the farm sold small amounts of electricity to Duke Energy, enough to power about 400 homes. The following year, the state approved a permit modification allowing the farm’s owners, B&B Partnership — Deborah and Todd Ballance — to include up to 10 tons of food waste from Smithfield’s Kinston plant per day, and as much as 105 tons of dead pigs to generate methane. However, state records show on several occasions, White Oak accepted more food waste than permitted.

When the violations occurred this year with the biodigester, White Oak had been “depopulated,” since December 2020, nearly 18 months, meaning that it was no longer raising the 65,000 swine allowed by its general permit. Without pigs to provide additional waste to generate methane, the farm deposited more dead hogs and meat into the digester — essentially a covered waste lagoon.

“The operation has operated beyond the scope of what is approved under the facility’ s permit, including introduction of unapproved products,” a DEQ letter to B&B Partnership reads. . The lagoons were also too full — also known as freeboard — which put them at risk of breaching. And based on state field observations, there had likely been other illegal discharges. “… Either prior or ongoing waste releases have impacted an area” extending toward Nahunta Swamp.

During an onsite inspection after the 2022 incident, DEQ noted that “air quality and odors observed over the incident were objectionable.”

In addition to high levels of ammonia in groundwater, nitrates exceeded state standards by 6.5 times, according to DEQ records.

State records show the farm owners’ earlier hubris in violating the terms of its biodigester permit. In 2021, the farm didn’t monitor for ammonia in its air emissions, according to state documents, because the owners claimed that without pigs onsite “ammonia emissions will be so low compared to other waste sources.”

DEQ replied: “Operational changes do not allow you to unilaterally decide which permit conditions are applicable.”

The $34,000 penalty is the third-largest fine the state has assessed against a hog farm in the past six years. In 2020, B&L Farms near Spivey’s Corner in Sampson County was fined more than $87,000, Policy Watch reported at the time. And in 2018, Lanier Farms in Jones County was penalized $64,000, but only after racking up violations for 12 years.



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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.