Discussion about methane recovery permit request continues

Published 3:12 pm Tuesday, April 11, 2023

JACKSON – More information was provided, but the Northampton County Board of Commissioners still opted at their April 3 meeting to table their decision again on a Special Use permit request first submitted last month.

As previously reported by the News Herald, Cardinal Bio-Energy, LLC submitted an application for special use permits to install a methane gas recovery system at two hog farms in the county.

Those farms are located on Spuds Lane outside of Pleasant Hill and Gilt Lane outside of Gaston. Smithfield Foods operates both farms and works in partnership with Cardinal Bio-Energy to install these systems.

A public hearing was held on March 20 to consider public input on the proposal.

The systems, called digesters, are meant to capture the methane gas released from hog lagoons. That methane is then cleaned and infused into a natural gas pipeline.

Joe Birschbach, a representative from Cardinal Bio-Energy, explained during the March meeting 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.

If granted, the special use permit would allow them to install plastic liners over the lagoons to capture, then clean the methane.

Citizens who chose to speak during the public hearing raised concerns about the proposal, and the commissioners had several questions as well. They ultimately decided to hold off on making a decision until they could receive more information.

In response, Birschbach submitted a letter with additional data. That information noted that the NC Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) is in charge of regulating the existing hog farm and its manure management systems, and the project will remain in compliance with NCDEQ requirements for air and water.

The letter also stated that the proposed new system would not increase the amount of nitrogen/ammonia at the farm because there will not be an increase in the source of the nitrogen/ammonia. The farms’ lagoons are currently lined with engineered soils/materials, and the new digester covers will be anchored down and lined with impermeable plastic.

At the April 3 meeting, the commissioners took the opportunity to ask Birschbach, and his colleague from Smithfield Foods, Kraig Westerbeek, more questions about the project.

Commissioner Geneva Faulkner noted that she had requested test results for air quality, water quality, and ammonia emissions tests from two similar locations elsewhere that had already installed the equipment. No data was submitted with the company’s response.

“Most tests are performed by the environmental agencies of the respective states that these projects are located,” Birschbach explained.

Faulkner pointed out that any water and air tests performed by a state agency would be public record. She also stated she wasn’t comfortable making a decision without first being able to look at that data.

Birschbach said NCDEQ does the testing and he could inquire for those results.

Commissioner Melvetta Broadnax Taylor asked about what happens if a digester overflows and who would be responsible for the cleanup.

Westerbeek answered that the farms have permits that require them to prevent overflows, and those permits are in Smithfield Foods’ name. They would be the ones responsible, he explained.

Broadnax Taylor also asked, as she did at the March meeting, if Smithfield had done any community outreach to assuage citizen concerns about the proposed technology. Commissioner Kelvin Edwards chimed in to suggest holding a public Q&A forum to present all the facts.

Commissioner Ed Martin suggested holding that meeting in a location closer to where the farms in question are, to make it easier for those living nearby to attend.

“Smithfield is very proud of the project that we’re putting forth,” Westerbeek said. “We genuinely believe it’s in the best interest of Northampton County residents, so I will take that under advisement. My immediate answer tonight is, certainly we have no problem sharing what we’re doing with a broader group.”

Faulkner motioned to table their decision until their May 15 regular meeting, and that the community meeting should be held sometime before their May 1 meeting. Edwards seconded the motion, and the board voted unanimously in favor.

Board Chair wrapped up the discussion by emphasizing, “we just want to do what’s best for our citizens.”

No date or location has been announced yet for the requested community meeting.