RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The North Carolina General Assembly began moving its annual farm bill Tuesday with a Senate committee voting for legislation that in part would create a more streamlined permit for turning hog waste into energy.
Like previous years, the measure contains a hodgepodge of changes, such as exempting fires for cooking and warmth from certain open-burn bans, increasing punishments for stealing timber and clarifying compensation rules for state Forest Service firefighters.
But the measure that cleared the Senate agriculture panel also would create “general permits” for animal farm operations that allow the owner to operate a farm digester system that collects methane gas.
Currently, state environmental regulators require individual permits for these biogas operations, which can mean more public input and scrutiny. General permits that last five years already are required for conventional swine farm operations, said Sen. Brent Jackson of Sampson County, the bill’s chief sponsor.
The bill directs the Environmental Management Commission to decide on a permit within 90 days or it could soon could go before an administrative law judge. In contrast, a recent individual permit for a biogas operation took 18 months to be approved, Jackson said.
The bill advanced to another Senate committee although environmental groups and residents from Jackson’s home county spoke against the general permit provisions. They said it would stifle neighbors to the farms, who already have to deal with the odors coming from hog waste pits, from getting the attention of state regulators.
“We have already experienced what it is like when the community is excluded from what agriculture and energy corporations are doing in our communities,” Sampson County resident Janet Melvin told committee members. “I am not against hog farms or hogs. I am against secrecy and lack of transparency.”
The North Carolina Pork Council, representing pork producers, supports the provision. It makes sense because biogas operations on farms that have received specialized permits - about two dozen have been issued over the past decade - are very similar in scope, according to council lobbyist Angie Maier.
“The environmental benefits of these projects, particularly the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, are indisputable,” Maier said.
In a biogas operation, liquid hog waste enters a covered anaerobic digester and captures the natural gas, which in turn powers an electric turbine or gets transported by pipe. The waste ultimately enters a lagoon and is sprayed on land to reduce pollutants. Some environmental groups say biogas production comes with its own pollutants that would harm nearby residents.
Smithfield Foods, which contracts with many swine farm operators and owns farms in eastern North Carolina, figured into the meeting. Smithfield and Dominion Energy previously announced a partnership to generate and pipe “renewable natural gas” from farms in Sampson and Duplin counties. The “manure-to-energy” project will ship the gas to a refining facility proposed in Duplin County. The facility recently received a permit.
The legislature should be pushing Smithfield to expand use of technologies designed to make the waste less offensive to the environment, said Brooks Rainey Pearson with the Southern Environmental Law Center. An agreement two decades ago between Smithfield and the state has not resulted in such an expansion. The technology has not been considered economically feasible. Pearson pointed to action by leaders in Missouri to force Smithfield to use alternative waste disposal methods.
“When required to do better, (Smithfield) found a way to do better and still make a profit,” Pearson said. “If we’re going to have a general permit, it should require environmentally superior technology to protect the neighbors and the environment.”
Changes were made to the bill to reflect input from interested parties, said Jackson, who called the general permit “a step in the right direction.” He accused some opponents of seeking to do away with swine operations altogether.
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