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EPA to investigate hog farm waste biogas permits

Anaerobic digestion in a hog waste lagoon at Loyd Ray Farms causes methane to build up under a cover. This methane will be converted into swine biogas.
James Morrison
Anaerobic digestion in a hog waste lagoon at Loyd Ray Farms causes methane to build up under a cover. This methane will be converted into swine biogas.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will investigate whether the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality violated federal law by issuing permits to industrial hog operations that allow the farms to turn hog waste into biogas.

This investigation comes in response to a civil rights complaint the Southern Environmental Law Center filed in September on behalf of the Duplin County Branch of the North Carolina NAACP and the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign.

"We are excited that the EPA decided to investigate this complaint," said Robert Moore, president of the Duplin County Chapter of the North Carolina NAACP, in a recent press release. "We consider the investigation of this complaint as a step in the right direction."

In an emailed response, DEQ said it is reviewing the allegations.

"DEQ is committed to the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all North Carolinians," wrote Sharon Martin, DEQ deputy secretary for Public Affairs. "DEQ staff reviewed the concerns raised by the public and carefully evaluated the permit modifications to address the concerns within the existing authority of the agency and applicable state rules and regulations."

In March, DEQ approved changes to existing permits for four hog operations in Sampson and Duplin Counties. The changes allow these facilities to install anaerobic digesters in order to build up and capture methane emitted from lagoons of hog waste. Once the methane is captured, these facilities plan to turn it into biogas.

The complaint filed by SELC accuses DEQ of discriminating "against Black, Latino and Native American residents of Duplin and Sampson Counties on the basis of race and national origin" by approving these permits. The complaint argues that in doing so, DEQ is violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

SELC says that the practice of turning hog waste into biogas will increase air and water pollution that will, in turn, disproportionately impact the communities of color surrounding the hog farms. However, other organizations support the practice, including the Environmental Defense Fund.

In a letterresponding to the complaint, the EPA said it will begin its process to gather relevant information.

"The initiation of an investigation of the issues above is not a decision on the merits," the letter stated. "[EPA will] discuss the matter further with [SELC] and NC DEQ, and determine next steps utilizing... internal procedures."

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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