Decision delayed

Published 4:45 pm Tuesday, March 28, 2023

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JACKSON – The room was packed here March 20 as people turned out to see whether the Northampton County Board of Commissioners would grant a special use permit for a methane recovery system.

While the commissioners ultimately decided to table the decision for a future meeting, there was plenty of discussion beforehand about the pros and cons of the proposed technology to be used at two local hog farms.

A public hearing was held during the commissioners’ regular meeting, and it opened with an overview of the request, presented by Northampton County Code Enforcement Director William Flynn.

“It’s a special use request that, if granted, will allow the applicant to construct a system to capture methane gas released from hog lagoons, then transport it and infuse it into an existing natural gas pipeline,” Flynn summarized. “This method is in use in several places throughout the country.”

The two hog farms where the methane gas recovery systems are designated for use are located at on Spuds Lane outside of Pleasant Hill and Gilt Lane outside of Gaston. Smithfield Farms operates both hog farms.

Flynn said the county’s planning board gave the proposed project a favorable recommendation.

Cardinal Bio-Energy, LLC is the applicant for the special use permits, and Joe Birschbach spoke on the company’s behalf during the public hearing. The company works in partnership with Smithfield to add these systems to hog farms.

Birschbach explained that the common practice for handling hog waste is to put the manure in open-air lagoons while it breaks down through anaerobic digestion. The leftovers are often used as fertilizer, but methane gas – a potent greenhouse gas – is emitted into the atmosphere as one of the byproducts.

“What we are proposing to do is take thick plastic liners, capping these open air lagoons and making them airtight, so we can capture the methane that is emitted off of the lagoons,” Birschbach stated.

Those emissions, he said, will then be sent to a gas processor, which will clean the methane before it is added to a natural gas pipeline to be used as an energy source.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website about anaerobic digestion, “biogas” is mostly methane and carbon dioxide, with very small amounts of water vapor and other gases. Carbon dioxide and other gases can be removed, leaving only the methane – a primary component of natural gas – behind.

“We’re pretty excited about these projects,” Birschbach continued. “We’ve had a great deal of success, and we find a great deal of benefits, not just for the local community but in handling and improving their operation.”

The commissioners asked several questions about the proposal. Birschbach and Smithfield representative Kraig Westerbeek supplied answers.

“When they capture methane off a landfill, it’s a poorer quality than natural gas,” said Commissioner Ed Martin. “You’re improving the quality before you inject it into the system?”

Birschbach stated that the hog lagoon emissions are typically 65 percent methane, but the processing cleans it up before it goes into the pipeline. He also noted to another of Martin’s questions that they are not expanding or building any new lagoons. The request is only to install the methane collector system at those two farms.

Commissioner Geneva Faulkner asked where else these methane collectors were located and if any of them had created hazardous situations.

Westerbeek said they had installed these systems as far away as Utah and Arizona and Missouri, but there are some already located in North Carolina as well. He also answered no to the inquiry about hazardous situations.

Faulkner also asked about the benefits and disadvantages to people living near the farms.

“There’s a perception of odor from the breakdown of manure. In essence, we’re capturing the emissions from the breakdown of manure. There will be a reduction of odor,” answered Westerbeek, who also said he couldn’t think of any disadvantages.

Faulkner wrapped up her questions by asking about gas transportation and if it will disrupt the local traffic flow.

Birschebach said it would be transported by approximately one or two trucks per day.

Commissioner Melvetta Broadnax Taylor asked if the applicant had made neighbors in the area aware of the proposal.

“We’ve not specifically sent anything to folks in the community about what we’re going to do,” said Westerbeek. “But Smithfield has been very public about our intentions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cover lagoons and that sort of thing.”

Commissioner Kelvin Edwards said that transparency was important, because “perception-wise, people say you’re expanding production.”

“Absolutely not,” Westerbeek emphasized. “It’s as simple as capturing emissions that are otherwise taking place on an ongoing basis legally. Capturing that and making it into a renewable fuel.”

Board Chair Charles Tyner asked if they had intentions to add this technology at other hog farms, and Westerbeek said Smithfield would like to take every opportunity available to do so, if possible.

With the commissioners’ questions concluded, citizens in attendance had a chance to speak during the public hearing.

Richie Harding, who said he lives near one of the farms, centered most of his comments on water pollution and odor created by Smithfield’s operations, and expressed skepticism that the methane recovery system would work as advertised.

“I ask you to get more information,” Harding said. “Hold off on this decision. Get good solid information.”

Two other Northampton County citizens also spoke against hog farms in general, noting the odor and potential health effects on people who live nearby. But one of the men did say that he’d be in favor of the methane recovery technology if it worked.

Two citizens from Garysburg submitted online comments. Both were not in favor of the proposed system.

The last person to speak during public comments was Blakely Hildebrand from the Southern Environmental Law Center, based in Chapel Hill.

“I would strongly advise the commission board to delay their decision about this in order to gather more information,” Hildebrand stated.

She also said that research has indicated this technology may actually increase ammonia emissions to harmful levels. With many unanswered questions, she urged the commissioners to proceed with caution.

Before closing the public hearing, Tyner did allow Westerbeek to briefly address some of those concerns, including the impact of ammonia.

“We do not see an increase in ammonia or ammonia emissions post-digester at all,” he said. “But even despite that, at the Gaston farm, we are planning on putting oxygen infusers in the open lagoon there. So even though it’s not more, it’ll be even less.”

Tyner said that he appreciated all the comments during the meeting, and that he also lives near a hog farm – though not the ones at the center of the discussion. He said it seemed like everyone wanted more information.

“We don’t ever want to do anything that’s harmful to the citizens of our county,” Tyner continued.

In a unanimous vote, the commissioners tabled the decision so that they could consider more information at their next meeting on April 3, which is a no-vote workshop meeting only.