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Biogas Permits Ignore Environmental Risk

Overriding appeals from environmental justice advocates, the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approved new general permits for hog farm biogas systems that weaken environmental protections for neighbors’ air and water.

DEQ’s approval followed a legislative mandate. The 2021 Farm Act created general permits for new projects to cap open-air hog waste lagoons and capture the methane for processing into biogas fuel supplies. Environmental justice advocates have argued DEQ could and should make the terms for the permits more protective of groundwater and air.

General permits are a category of permits for certain projects with the potential to adversely impact air and water quality. In theory, the type of project covered can be done without adverse impacts if it meets specific minimum standards. Those requirements are then written into the eligibility standards for the permit. Projects eligible for general permits do not have to go through the full individual permitting process other projects do, which means there is no public notice, comment, and hearings to get feedback from neighbors and interested parties before approving the permit.

In the case of these biogas projects, there is still great debate over the assertion that they are appropriate for a general permit at all. “The effects of biogas are still unclear: Research shows that when a lagoon is capped, potentially harmful ammonia accumulates in quantities about 3.5 times higher than in an uncapped lagoon. And in some cases, while one lagoon is covered, a second one that collects overflow remains open, continuing to emit methane, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and other greenhouse gasses. In short, the process doesn’t necessarily address the waste problem that residents—mostly low-income and Black—have dealt with for decades.”

In response to the DEQ action, Blakely Hildebrand, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) said, “As the leadership of the North Carolina legislature directed, the state today issued a one-size-fits-all permit that would allow virtually any industrial hog operation in the state to make more pollution for more profit to the detriment of people—disproportionately people of color—and our waterways. Covering hog waste pits makes more harmful gasses to sell for profit before dumping the leftover feces and urine in an open-air pit and spraying the waste onto fields, increasing harmful ammonia emissions, threatening water and air quality, and making North Carolinians sick. This permit fails to include adequate protections for our clean water, clean air, and the health of people living near hog operations, who are disproportionately Black, Latino, and Native American and have borne the heavy burden of the hog industry’s pollution for too long.” 

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