Big Win on Biogas Means Better Health for Eastern NC

by Joel Porter and Daisha Williams

Last week CleanAIRE NC and SELC reached a settlement agreement with Align RNG and the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that will improve community health protections at a proposed biogas plant in Sampson County. Align RNG has agreed to set new limits on air pollution coming from the plant. Align will also be required to monitor for (and publicly report) methane leaks going forward.

Read the full press release here. Below is a Q&A with CleanAIRE NC’s Policy Manager, Joel Porter, and Environmental Justice Program Manager, Daisha Williams.

Q: What is biogas?

Livestock feces and waste is collected in open-air pits to be converted to biogas.

Joel: Don’t let the industry greenwashing fool you – ‘biogas’ is pretty gross. It’s a method of capturing harmful gases from untreated livestock feces and waste and turning it into fuel by covering otherwise open waste pits. The industry likes to call this clean energy, but the reality is biogas doesn’t solve any of the underlying problems created by corporate animal feeding operations and can actually make those issues worse. Ammonia, animal waste, and other pollutants still seep into the air and water from hog operations, jeopardizing the health of the communities and people living around them. Corporate animal feeding operations also continue to spray waste onto open fields as a crop fertilizer.

Both of these practices continue to leach pollutants into the air and water, endangering the environment, climate, community and farmer health, and create a host of other problems. 

Livestock waste, methane, and other pollutants can seep into the air and water, especially during floods. The above photo, courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance, was taken during Hurricane Florence.

Q: Why is this settlement such a big deal?

Daisha: While this won’t solve all of the problems with concentrated animal feeding operations, it is a huge victory for health and justice in eastern North Carolina.  Align RNG has agreed to community safeguards that strengthen limits on the plant where the biogas will be processed. Align will have to turn over its emissions monitoring data from the plant to DAQ and CleanAIRE NC, so the public can verify compliance. Transparency is the best disinfectant.

Q: What does this outcome mean for the communities and people living around the biogas plant?

Water polluted from swine production.

Daisha: Nobody deserves to live with pig feces in their air and water. The clustering of North Carolina’s CAFOs in low-income, minority communities, as well as the health impacts that accompany them, has raised some serious concerns of environmental injustice. Limiting the continued harm on these vulnerable communities is a great stride towards equity to reduce the risk of harmful pollution from these facilities. This settlement limits harmful sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide emissions, two dangerous pollutants that can cause damage to individuals’ respiratory systems; environmentally, these pollutants can damage plant and crop growth and contribute to haze.

And with the increased transparency required by this settlement, nearby families will be in a better place to protect themselves and their community.

Q: And what about climate emissions?

Joel: Again, biogas is not clean energy. In fact, the anaerobic digesters used in this process actually maximize methane production, a dangerous greenhouse gas that’s 100 times as potent as carbon dioxide. This creates risks for leakage throughout these systems, adding fuel to the fire of the climate crisis. The fuel is then burned at the end-source (either to generate electricity, or used for residential purposes such as gas-log fireplaces, on your stovetop, or to heat water tanks) which emits carbon dioxide. 

Our settlement requires the company to monitor the hog operations connecting to this plant for methane leaks and make those reports public. There currently is not a Federal, state, or local requirement for this kind of monitoring or reporting to happen, so this is a big and important win for North Carolina. We hope industry (state, or federal government) will see the value in protecting the environment with these kinds of projects and will continue to go further to ensure their infrastructure is safe, secure, and sustainable. 

Q: Where does this go from here?

Joel: There’s much more North Carolina can do to address the threat of untreated hog waste pollution, but this week’s settlement is a major victory for community health.

Ultimately, we need corporate animal operations to use the best technologies available to protect the environment. Companies can also work with stakeholders like us to replicate and strengthen this agreement we’ve reached here and turn their greenwashing into truly green solutions.  

Fact sheet courtesy of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

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