Hog farm concerns aired again

Published 4:23 pm Tuesday, August 15, 2023

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JACKSON – Even though it wasn’t listed on the agenda, hog farms were a big topic of discussion at the Northampton County Board of Commissioners meeting here Aug. 7.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, several citizens who live near hog farms located outside of Gaston and Pleasant Hill choose to speak about the impact on their quality of life.

The farms in question, which are operated by Smithfield Farms, were central to a special use permit request earlier this year. On March 20, the commissioners held a public hearing to consider the request by Cardinal Bio-Energy, LLC to construct a methane recovery system – called a digester – that would capture methane gas produced as a byproduct of the breakdown of hog waste.

A representative from the company explained during that hearing that the system would cover the existing open-air waste lagoons with thick plastic liners to capture the methane gas, which would then be transported and infused into a natural gas pipeline.

A handful of citizens expressed their opposition to the proposal at the time, and the commissioners said they wanted to review more information before making their decision.

The permit request was discussed again at a commissioners’ meeting on April 3 after the company had submitted more information about the digester system. Some of the commissioners felt that their questions still had not been completely answered yet, and others suggested that a public forum could be helpful to present all the facts.

The April meeting concluded once again with the commissioners choosing to table their decision on the permit request. The topic has not been listed on the agenda for a Board of Commissioners’ meeting since then.

Board Attorney Scott McKellar told the News Herald that the company withdrew their special use permit request on May 1.

But the citizens attending the Aug. 7 meeting said another company called “Monarch Energy” held a public meeting in Gaston recently to share more information about the digester technology. This prompted the citizens’ concerns that another special use permit application had been filed for the nearby hog farms.

As of August 9, however, McKellar told the News Herald that the county has not received any similar applications.

Six people spoke at the Aug. 7 meeting to explain how the nearby farms have had negative impacts on their lives.

Theresa Whitfield said she believes the waste from the hog farms has affected her health, her mother’s health, and other neighbors as well.

“It’s affecting everybody, and something needs to be done soon,” she emphasized.

Two citizens, identified only as Mr. and Mrs. Gatling, both spoke about the odor that emanates from the farm half a mile away from their home. Mrs. Gatling said she has trouble breathing sometimes because of the “terrible” smell, and Mr. Gatling said they can’t even sit on their porch.

Richie Harding said that representatives from Monarch Energy wouldn’t answer their questions about hog waste cleanup or what plans were in place in case of emergencies. He also raised concerns about contamination of the surrounding area if the waste was mishandled.

“All this stuff seems to happen in communities of people who look like me. And I’m sick and tired of it,” Harding concluded.

Larry Baldwin, a member of Waterkeeper Alliance, said he has been keeping an eye on these kinds of animal operations for over 20 years, and said that communities of color are often targeted and the companies allegedly lie to the public.

Baldwin isn’t a resident of Northampton County, but said he supports the citizens who are affected by the farms. He urged the commissioners to “do their homework” on the subject, and offered to share more of his experiences if they were interested.

Belinda Joyner wrapped up the citizen comments by emphasizing that nobody should put profits over people, and her community did not want to be a “dumping ground.” She said they would continue to speak up about this issue in the future.

Joyner also expressed disappointment that only one commissioner – Melvetta Broadnax Taylor – had attended the informational meeting with Monarch Energy. Commissioner Kelvin Edwards and Board Chair Charles Tyner both said they weren’t aware of the meeting beforehand.

Commissioner Ed Martin said he saw mention of the meeting on Facebook, but wasn’t able to get off work in time to attend.

Following the public comments, the county manager and commissioners made their usual remarks at the conclusion of the meeting. They all emphasized that they care about the citizens’ concerns and they appreciated being kept informed about the situation.

“I live less than a mile from a hog farm,” stated Tyner, who lives on the eastern end of Northampton County.

He noted that any previous decisions about hog farms in Northampton County were made well before any of the current commissioners began serving on the board.

“We’ll do all we can, within the law, to help you,” he concluded.