Align RNG Spells Health & Equity Problems for Eastern NC

by Joel Porter

A new alliance of what could be considered strange bedfellows is emerging here in North Carolina. In Duplin and Sampson counties, the energy industry is joining forces with the agriculture industry on what they have been saying is “for the good of the climate, consumers and family farmers.” This is a classic case of greenwashing.  Smithfield Foods, the largest hog producer in the country, and Dominion Energy, through their joint venture Align RNG, is investing $500 million in biogas development in North Carolina and a handful of other states.  Align’s project will lock-in and could worsen decades’ old harms to the environment and neighbors living nearby, all while industry profits off of its pollution.

Align RNG’s first project, the Grady Road Project, would be located in Duplin and Sampson counties. These two counties have long-running and deep-seated issues with the lagoon-and-sprayfield system used by industrial hog operations. The lagoon and sprayfield system involves flushing untreated hog feces and urine into open-air pits, allowing the solid waste to settle to the bottom, and spraying the liquid waste onto nearby cropland. In fact, Duplin and Sampson Counties have more industrial hog operations than anywhere in America. Nutrients pollute our waterways and contaminate groundwater resources, while the odors from the hog barns and waste lagoons make the air putrid at times. Black, Latinx, and Native Americans are more likely than whites to live within three miles of hog operations using the lagoon and sprayfield system, making it a serious and long-standing environmental justice issue.

Filth in the Air and Water

According to the USDA, North Carolina is home to over 9,000,000 swine.  The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality estimates that each year over 46 million kg of ammonia is released into the airshed of the Cape Fear River basin and the Atlantic Ocean. Other emissions from these hog operations include sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

The health effects of all that pollution on communities near these operations is significant. Researchers at Duke University found that the life expectancy of residents living near these operations is lower, while the occurrence of anemia, kidney disease, septicemia, tuberculosis, infant mortality, and low birth weight among newborns is all higher.

Most hog operations in North Carolina are owned by or contracted to Smithfield or another corporate hog producer, who have deep pockets and enormous political influence. Smithfield has repeatedly claimed that it is too expensive to clean up the pollution from industrial hog operations. Even after an agreement in 2000 between Smithfield Foods and the North Carolina Attorney General under which Smithfield agreed to install environmentally superior technologies, the company still hasn’t cleaned up its mess. Now Smithfield stands to profit off of biogas production; it is past time that the company fulfills its promise to North Carolinians to use cleaner technology to manage hog waste.

Hiding Environmental and Health Impacts

Despite their failure to disclose the full impacts these operations would have on local air quality and the health of nearby communities, Align RNG has been given an air emissions permit from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Four of the 19 participating swine operations have requested water permits from DEQ to install digesters to produce biogas. Align RNG continues to obscure critical information from DEQ about the details and the full environmental and health impacts of the Grady Road Project.

Align will install digesters over hog waste lagoons at industrial hog operations in Duplin and Sampson counties. With the absence of oxygen, these lagoons covered by digesters (think of them as large tarps) will generate and trap methane, a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and other gases. Those gases would be piped to a new processing facility constructed by Align RNG. After the biogas has been processed at the facility, it is injected into the existing natural gas pipeline and will travel through miles and miles of more pipeline to feed directly into your house or to one of Duke Energy’s electric generation plants. They call it, “farm to energy.” How quaint.

So Align RNG’s solution to cleaning up their pollution…is to make more pollution. 

Align RNG’s biogas project is not a clean energy solution.  Align RNG’s project will lock in the harmful and primitive lagoon and sprayfield system, make air and water pollution worse, and continue to cause adverse health impacts for people living nearby. Align’s proposal would actually increase the production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. And while most of the increased methane emissions would be captured, there is a real risk that methane “leaks” could quickly eliminate any climate benefits and make this project climate intensive.

The residents, families, and communities that live near these untreated hog waste lagoons deserve to know what is being dumped into their air and drinking water. Clean Air Carolina and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit last week challenging DEQ’s permit approval.

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