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For decades, the pollution seeping out of industrial hog operations’ manure cesspools has made life hell for the Black, Latino, and Native American communities living in eastern North Carolina.
Some residents have said the smell of the pig waste—which is stored in “lagoons” before it’s broken down and sprayed onto fields—makes them prisoners in their own homes. People living in the shadow of massive swine farms also have previously reported headaches, coughing, diarrhea, and burning eyes, among other issues, and tend to have poorer health outcomes than those who live further away.
Now, the world’s largest pork processor says it has a “green” solution that could cover up some of the enormous pits and potentially reduce their horrific odor.
Not everyone is convinced, though. According to a complaint filed with the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of local civil rights groups, the company’s plans could make pollution in the area—and its associated health problems—even worse.
“This is a classic case of greenwashing.”
Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods wants to capture the methane from the poop lagoons at some of its swine operations to produce biogas, a renewable fuel made from the byproducts of organic waste, in partnership with electric utility Dominion Energy. The joint venture, called Align RNG, says the project will take the equivalent of 36,000 cars off the road every year by cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions or have the same benefits as planting 2.7 million new trees annually.
Environmental activists, however, argue the initiative won’t address the underlying issues with the lagoons—and will ensure the company uses them for years to come. The process of turning organic waste into biogas also risks releasing more ammonia into the air, which contributes to the fine particulate matter pollution associated with serious health problems and even premature death, according to the complaint. And the leftover waste will still be dumped into other, uncovered lagoons and sprayed on nearby fields.
“Smithfield and Dominion’s plans will lock in this harmful system—this lagoon and sprayfield system—and make some of the pollution problems worse,” said Blakely Hildebrand, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed the complaint against the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. “This is a classic case of greenwashing.”
Earlier this year, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality awarded Smithfield subsidiary Murphy-Brown four permits to install “anaerobic digesters”—basically covered lagoons that can trap methane—at four swine feeding operations in Duplin and Sampson Counties, where about half of the residents are Black, Latino, or Native American. But the EPA complaint alleges the permits violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination in programs that receive federal dollars, in this case, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
As a result, the groups behind the complaint, including a local NAACP branch and The North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign, are asking that the feds investigate whether the permits will have a discriminatory impact. That’s particularly urgent since a new state law could soon make it easier to get biogas facilities approved across the state.
“It’s hidden racism is what it is: just making money, not caring about those around you,” said Robert Moore, the president of the Duplin County branch of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP.
‘It’s just a money thing’
When Moore was born in Duplin County in 1958, his neighborhood was all small hog farms —maybe a family would have 30 pigs if they were considered “big time,” he said. But when he returned home in 2003 after living in Raleigh, massive, industrial operations called “concentrated animal feeding facilities” had replaced almost all the mom-and-pop farms.
Big Ag also brought on big waste—pits that looked like “the biggest swimming pool you’ve ever seen filled to the brim with hog shit,” according to Lee Miller, a lecturing fellow at the Duke University School of Law’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.
Those pits not only made the air reek and lowered property values, they emanated methane, a potent greenhouse gas and major contributor to global warming. And during hurricane season, they can overflow or breach, spilling pollutants into rivers and streams—even local groundwater.
“The solids settle to the bottom of the hole in the ground, and the liquids are on top,” said Sacoby Wilson, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health who has long focused on environmental justice issues. “It’s a very cheap way—and, in my opinion, a very archaic way—to manage animal waste. We don’t manage human waste that way.”
The communities impacted by the lagoons were also deeply important to some of their inhabitants. Elsie Herring, one Duplin County, North Carolina, activist, told a congressional committee in 2019 that her grandfather was born a slave on the same property he later purchased in Duplin County. Her mother was born there, and her father later worked the land as a sharecropper. They raised 15 children there, including Herring, who died this year.
“The land where I live is precious to me and my family. We have lived there since we were enslaved there,” Herring said. “It is the first property we owned after slavery. People sometimes ask why I don’t move, but I don’t want to move. This land is home. My grandfather walked this land. This land is my birthright.”
Hundreds of neighbors have also joined nuisance lawsuits against Smithfield over the living conditions caused by waste lagoons, according to the EPA complaint—and juries have repeatedly sided with them.
It’s not that North Carolina officials haven’t recognized the problem posed by the poop pits. The state implemented a moratorium on new swine farms or expansions, which was made permanent for operations that used waste lagoons in 2007. Smithfield also agreed in 2000 to research and install more environmentally friendly lagoon alternatives. (That deal, which ultimately had little impact, expires in 2025, according to ProPublica.)
But as the world copes with a full-blown climate emergency, companies and green groups alike have posited that covering the pits up and making biogas—as Smithfield plans to do on a large scale—could be a win-win: make a bit of money, while also greatly cutting dangerous emissions. North Carolina, where mostly large-scale hog farms make 10 billion gallons of waste each year, could even help lead biogas production, according to the state’s clean energy plan.
For those reasons, Smithfield is wondering why activists are coming for them.
“We are perplexed by any effort to thwart sustainable farming practices to address the threat of climate change, a top priority for North Carolina and our nation,” Jim Monroe, vice president of corporate affairs for Smithfield Foods, said in a statement to VICE News. “Turning methane from hog farms into clean energy is an innovative, sustainable practice and an absolute win for North Carolina, the communities where Smithfield operates and the environment.”
Both Smithfield and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) also emphasized an extensive outreach campaign to locals. Josh Kastrinsky, a spokesperson for the agency, said it conducted an environmental justice analysis, held a public meeting and comment period, and took the public’s concern into account when evaluating permit modifications.
“DEQ is committed to the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all North Carolinians and has made great strides in making our decisions more inclusive, transparent and responsive to community members,” Kastrinsky said.
But Moore still has questions.
“We want to bring science into this, and see and do some research, and really get some real answers,” Moore said. “There is technology out there—it has been proven in other areas in other states. It’s just a money thing. Biogas is going to bring additional income. Why not use some of that to protect the people around your operation?”
Smithfield can afford to keep communities safe while also reducing methane emissions, according to Miller, who noted they’ve already done it on a farm in Missouri. A hog operation there had to use a more advanced manure-management system as part of federal and state consent degrees, according to an article in the publication Successful Farming.
“If we’re going to have the lagoon and spray field system, we must capture the methane. Climate change is real, we are causing it, and methane is a greenhouse gas that is something like 25 to 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide,” Miller said. “But to say we can either capture methane or we can address all of the other harms caused by lagoons and spray fields is a false choice.”