The Optima KV project in Duplin County pipes methane gas from nearby hog farms to this new refinery in Kenansville. There the gas is converted to pipeline-quality natural gas. Duke Energy uses the gas to produce electricity at its Smith Energy Complex in Richmond County. (Photo courtesy of Duke Energy.)

Smithfield Foods says it plans to cover most of its hog lagoons in North Carolina to generate renewable energy from methane gas and to protect the waste pits from heavy rains, which caused significant environmental concerns during Hurricane Florence last month.

State officials and the national Environmental Defense Fund applauded Smithfield’s plans, announced in a news release late Thursday. The Southern Environmental Law Center was not as enthusiastic, saying the world’s largest hog producer should do much more to protect people’s health and the environment.

Under the plans, Smithfield says it will install manure lagoon covers and anaerobic digesters on 90 percent of its finishing hog farms in North Carolina, Missouri and Utah within 10 years. Smithfield also plans to capture 85,000 tons of methane each year to generate renewable natural gas.

The release did not say whether Smithfield will pay for the lagoon covers or make contract farmers bear the brunt of the costs.

Waste from a hog farm pours from a barn into an uncovered lagoon in Duplin County. (Photo credit: Catherine Clabby)

According to the release, Smithfield will also introduce new technologies to reduce truck traffic and miles traveled by more than 85 percent on certain roads. On the fields of contract farmers, the company says it will adopt low-trajectory sprayers for hog waste pumped from the lagoons and spread on fields, and plant more vegetative buffers between farms and neighbors.

Mixed reaction

Smithfield’s announcement comes about a month after Hurricane Florence structurally damaged at least six of the 3,300 hog lagoons in North Carolina, spilling vast amounts of untreated waste. Another 33 lagoons overtopped their banks, according to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. Each lagoon is about the size of a football field.

The announcement also comes after people living next to Smithfield’s contract farms were awarded more than half a billion dollars this year in three nuisance lawsuits filed in North Carolina. Neighbors complained in part that the farms smelled so bad and drew so many flies that they couldn’t go outside at times. The awards will be reduced to a fraction of that amount due to a 1995 law capping damages that companies have to pay. Smithfield plans to appeal the verdicts.

State officials heralded Smithfield’s planned improvements.

“Agriculture is the number one industry in our state. Investment like this will help ensure this economic pillar stays strong for generations,” Lt. Gov. Dan Forest said in the Smithfield release. “We are fortunate to have a responsible company like Smithfield that leverages evolving technologies to ensure the sustainability of its operations while providing more than 10,000 jobs to North Carolinians, further strengthening our economy.”

But not everyone is happy.

“Smithfield’s plan fails to protect its neighbors from all the pollution problems associated with its hog lagoons–polluted water, noxious odors, and other nuisances inherent in industrial hog operations,” Blakely Hildebrand, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “In fact, Smithfield’s plan may make some pollution problems even worse.

“The company could have invested in cleaner, more responsible technology that protects families, communities, and our air and waterways — especially in the face of more intense storms. Instead, Smithfield chose to further entrench the lagoon-and-sprayfield system, and its injustices.”

Hildebrand also criticized Smithfield’s biogas proposal because of continued reliance “on a primitive lagoon-and-sprayfield system.”

Cleaner technologies for managing this waste are available and affordable for this multi-billion-dollar company,” Hildebrand said in her statement. “Smithfield’s industrial hog operations are disproportionately located in communities of color, making these biogas projects an environmental justice issue.”

Long-term initiative

Smithfield said its biogas plans are part of Smithfield Renewables, a year-old initiative aimed at reducing the company’s greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2025.

This map shows the location of both hog farms and natural gas pipelines in Eastern North Carolina. (Source: Smithfield Foods via NC Energy Policy Council)

“Smithfield is demonstrating leadership by investing in solutions that build climate resilience and cut greenhouse gas emissions,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. “Smithfield’s commitment to deploy technologies that convert methane into renewable biogas will substantially reduce emissions of a powerful greenhouse gas and create economic opportunities for rural communities. This commitment marks a welcome turning point for the industry.”

In North Carolina, Smithfield and five contract hog farms are involved in a pilot project known as Optima KV, which uses anaerobic digesters to capture and clean biogas. The gas is then transported to a central facility at Smithfield to be converted into renewable natural gas. The project is expected to create enough natural gas to power 1,000 homes each year, according to the release.

“I am proud to be on the ground floor of an initiative that provides my operations with an additional source of revenue, and also supports even stronger environmental management practices,” said John Kilpatrick, owner of Circle K II Farms and a Smithfield contract grower. “I am also quite proud of my role in providing clean energy to my community—a role that challenges conventional thinking about agriculture and what it means to be a farmer.”

To complement the renewable energy efforts taking place on farms, Smithfield’s plant in Tar Heel will use its wastewater treatment system to create more natural gas. The company is building a refinery and gas injection system to collect and clean biogas from an existing onsite digester.

The cleaned biogas will be injected into the natural gas pipeline to serve local consumers. When finished, the release says, the project will power more than 2,000 homes in the surrounding area each year.

Once the pilot project is complete, Smithfield plans to work with contract farmers to expand renewable energy efforts across eastern North Carolina, the release said.

“In 10 years, more than 90 percent of Smithfield’s company-owned and contract hog finishing spaces in North Carolina will have the capabilities to produce” renewable natural gas, the release says.

North Carolina is the second largest hog-producing state in the country, behind only Iowa. Most of the 9 million hogs raised in the state each year are in Duplin, Sampson and Pender counties.

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years.

This story was republished from North Carolina Health News with permission.

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