Help Keep Our Families and Environment Safe from Dirty Biogas

North Carolina’s 9.5 million hogs generate over 10 billion gallons of waste each year. The untreated pig feces and urine are stored in massive, mostly unlined lagoon pits before being sprayed into the air, to possibly travel for miles, contaminating not just the air but soil and waterways. As a result, North Carolinians are suffering. Low-income and communities of color are disproportionately harmed.

Now, the pork industry aims to turn its hazardous waste into another profit stream: directed biogas, which worsens pollution and public health and helps the industry avoid accountability.

North Carolinians all want—and deserve—clean air, safe drinking water, and a healthy, safe environment for our families and communities. Directed biogas is a new threat to these most basic rights.

The Problem withDirected Biogas

Biogas is created when hog-waste lagoons are covered, which traps methane (and other gases) inside. The gas is then transported through a maze of newly constructed pipelines that connect multiple hog farms to a central facility where the gas is processed. This is known as a directed biogas project.

Directed biogas perpetuates use of the outdated and damaging lagoon and sprayfield system, exacerbates adverse effects of this system, and discourages investment in environmentally superior technologies.

Directed biogas projects ignore or compound environmental concerns, including air and water pollution, and the impact of natural disasters on surrounding communities. They could usher in claims of eminent domain for use of land to construct new pipelines. Unlike the sun and wind, methane from pig feces is not a clean, renewable, naturally occurring resource.

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The Bottom Line

Directed biogas is an attempt to greenwash an extremely damaging industry, to garner the public’s and policymakers’ support despite increased threats of water pollution, potential gas leaks, and other environmental problems.

Biogas is dirty energy that threatens the health and viability of communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, many of whom already endure hog feces sprayed onto their property and will continue to suffer this egregious human rights abuse if biogas becomes status quo.

North Carolina’s communities deserve a solution to the harms they have endured for so long at the hands of corporate animal ag—not another exploitative system that will keep them under this industry’s power.

“With all the things that we have done at Butler Farms, including lagoon covers, we have done very little to improve our swine waste management program. While lagoon covers help to lessen the lagoon odor, it does very little to help with our overapplication of phosphorus and nitrates to the soil. While digesters take a resource that is already on the farm and produces energy in the form of heat or electricity, digesters do very little to improve our impact on the environment. There is a small amount of reduction in greenhouse gases, and digested swine waste is more plant available than undigested waste. The general public (the consumer) needs to know these facts. Swine waste programs such as ‘swine waste to electricity’ and ‘swine waste to pipeline biogas’ are programs designed to make a revenue stream, not to solve our pollution issues. With swine waste you end up with most or all of the bad stuff. You’ve just panned the gold out of the waste, and the waste is still with you on the farm.”

—Tom Butler, a North Carolina hog farmer who installed a biogas digester at his farm

“Right beside our church is an industrial hog farm. A few months ago, a water surveyor came to our church to test our water. When he finished the testing, he told me that we had to shut off our water immediately. … Many of the members of my church are elderly and live off of well water. Hog farms are located all over the community, and I wonder if their water was tested, what would be the results? Would they be told to shut off their water immediately? The development of biogas facilities will only add to the harmful impact that these hog farms have on our community.”

—Sampson County pastor and community member

Myth: Environmentalists are anti-farming activists who oppose small family farmers.

Fact: Our organizations oppose directed biogas projects built as components of lagoon and sprayfield systems of waste management. These systems are not employed by row crop farmers or family farmers who produce meat. They are, however, used by industrial hog producers that work for Smithfield, the world’s largest meat-producing company. These systems are known to harm surrounding communities. We’re not asking anyone to stop farming in North Carolina; we’re insisting that industrial hog operations stop harming North Carolinians.

Myth: Methane is a natural byproduct of pork production.

Fact: In agriculture, methane is naturally generated from animal belching, animal flatulence, or bacterial action in the biodegradation of waste. In biogas projects, companies expedite and amplify the waste biodegradation process to purposefully generate methane in abundant quantities. Storing swine waste in lagoons or anaerobic digestion tanks causes bacteria to break down waste and generates methane. In other words, increased methane production at hog farms is primarily a result of industry waste-management decisions.

Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, animal agriculture accounts for 14.5 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

Myth: Directed biogas operations are well regulated.

Fact: The NC Department of Environmental Quality does issue permits to industrial hog operations, but they contain no requirement to monitor groundwater or surface water impacts absent a self-reported spill. And the permits don’t regulate air emissions at all.

Separate from facilities installing anaerobic digesters, biogas upgrading facilities with “flares,” or devices that burn off waste gas, require an air-emissions permit, such as a “synthetic minor” permit. But methane is not currently regulated under U.S. or state law, so any methane leakage during transmission, distribution, or upgrading is not regulated.

The biogas upgrading facility will also emit regulated gases, including nitrous oxide (another dangerous greenhouse gas), sulphur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide.

Myth: The lagoon and sprayfield system is the best way to manage swine waste.

Fact: Scientists have evaluated multiple technologies and found them to reduce local pollution. Indeed, Smithfield employs better waste-management technology at operations in other states. The technology is available, but digging a hole in the ground while displacing external costs onto families and communities is cheaper.

Myth: Biogas is a climate solution.

Fact: Methane has a greenhouse effect that is 28–36 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year time frame and is even more intense on shorter timelines.

Biogas projects aim to increase methane production at industrial hog operations. Methane produced in anaerobic digesters will be directed to an upgrading facility and then into the gas transmission and distribution system where it will burn in homes or at electric generation stations. It is odorless, colorless, and highly flammable. Methane leaks throughout the project’s footprint could be difficult to detect and could quickly negate any purported climate benefit.

Want to Do More?

Biogas threatens the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the health and safety of our children, our families, and our communities.

Tell your state legislators to say NO to biogas in our state.