Gov. Roy Cooper’s signing of the 2021 Farm Act was another win for the corporate factory farm lobby over the interests of neighbors harmed by Smithfield Foods and other polluters who spray hog waste onto their property and leak it into their drinking water sources. Those neighbors are predominately low-income and people of color.
Public health and environmental justice advocates have argued for decades that North Carolina must force the corporate hog industry to replace its obsolete system of open waste pits and spray fields. Instead, the new law adds another way to prop up this toxic system.
The most controversial and polluter-friendly provision in the bill requires the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to set up a “general permit” for so-called biogas capture systems on hog farms. A general permit is a shortcut that allows regulatory approval of any project which meets a set of general standards, without a case-by-case review of other circumstances or potential problems.
In essence, this mandate gives an official blessing to the retention of liquid waste lagoons which are fitted with a system for collecting the methane gas generated by the decaying hog waste. Strategically, it is intended to jump-start a market for captured methane from hog waste. It’s an economic boon for the big hog production corporations. It has also been portrayed as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it does nothing to address the severe pollution threat to nearby communities’ air and groundwater.
Environmental advocates vigorously opposed the change, and expressed disappointment that it was passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor. Among them was the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which pointed out the adverse impacts of continuing the lagoon and spray-field system “are disproportionately borne by Black, Latino, and Native American families in eastern North Carolina.”
“Pollution from industrial hog operations is one of the most significant environmental justice concerns in our state. Once again, the hog industry wielded its political power to drown out the voices of families harmed by its pollution, continuing a long history of injustice in North Carolina,” said SELC attorney Blakely Hildebrand.
DEQ must still write and adopt the details of this new general permit. Citizen advocates like NCLCV will use the opportunity to seek significantly stronger pollution controls on hog waste treatment systems.