Forty organizations working for environmental justice in North Carolina signed onto a letter by the Southern Environmental Law Center to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) regarding its allocation of Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) funds.

NRCS will receive approximately $20 billion through the IRA over the next four years and is charged with targeting this funding at programs that reduce agriculture’s adverse impact on the climate. We wrote to NRCS requesting that “no funding be allocated to harmful biogas projects that turn animal waste into energy. Instead, NRCS should direct funds to true climate solutions that protect clean air and clean water and reduce the pollution burden on frontline communities.”

Here is an excerpt of the letter:

North Carolina is second only to Iowa in hog production, producing approximately 9 million hogs every year. In Duplin and Sampson counties, hogs outnumber people by approximately thirty-to-one. These hogs are raised on more than 2,000 industrial hog operations in the low-lying, flood prone Coastal Plain of North Carolina. The vast majority of these operations use an outdated cesspit and sprayfield system in which hog feces and urine are flushed into open-air pits and then sprayed onto nearby fields. This system pollutes drinking water, waterways, and air quality; harms our climate; and burdens neighbors with noxious odors, endless truck traffic, and excess flies and buzzards. In recognition of the harm that this system inflicts on the environment and nearby families, in 2007 the North Carolina legislature banned the cesspit and sprayfield system for all new and expanding hog operations and allowed only existing facilities to keep this system in place.

Despite a commitment in 2000, Smithfield Foods, the largest hog producer in the country, failed to implement cleaner technology at its operations that would relieve environmental and community burdens. Instead, the company is doubling down on the harmful cesspit and sprayfield system as it plans its first large-scale swine waste-to-energy project in eastern North Carolina4; it plans to profit off of billions of gallons of polluting hog waste as so- called biogas. Indeed, the company is part of a half-billion-dollar joint venture to develop this new revenue stream and is selling it to the public as a “climate solution.” But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Anaerobic digesters—the main technology used by the hog industry to harvest methane and make biogas—can generate more methane than conventional lagoons, and open secondary lagoons that store digester waste release excess ammonia emissions. On-site or off-site venting and flaring of hog waste gases also emit greenhouse gases and other pollutants. The vast majority of hog operations utilizing digesters in North Carolina store digester waste in open lagoons where it emits methane, nitrous oxide, and ammonia; use high-pressure sprayers to land-apply digester waste rather than injection or other methods that minimize emissions6; and vent and flare biogas on-site without any limitations. Multiple studies have found that making biogas in this irresponsible way has potential to dramatically reduce, if not completely eliminate, any climate benefits.8 In addition, biogas sales rely on destructive fossil fuel infrastructure that harms the environment and is prone to methane leaks,9 and biogas-derived “natural gas” can displace less expensive, less carbon-intensive generation sources. When the entire life cycle is taken into account, biogas can unintentionally increase greenhouse gas emissions relative to the status quo. In short, so-called biogas is dirty energy.

For decades, frontline communities, environmental advocates, scientists, courts, federal agencies, the local and national press, and even North Carolina’s own Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board have come forward with evidence that the lagoon and sprayfield system degrades rivers and streams, contaminates groundwater and drinking water wells, poisons the air, and destroys quality of life for nearby families, a disproportionate share of whom are Black, Latino, and Native American. Just last year, the National Academy of Sciences published a study attributing 178 premature deaths every year to fine particulate pollution caused, in part, by ammonia emissions from hog operations in Sampson County and Duplin County alone. Before that, in 2018, researchers at Duke University Medical School published an epidemiological study finding significantly increased mortality and illness rates in communities near hog operations. The human and environmental costs of maintaining the status quo are staggering and biogas, as it is currently proposed by the hog industry in particular, does just that. Not only do digesters entrench the existing harms associated with the cesspit and sprayfield system, but in many cases, adding a digester may worsen water and air pollution and further exacerbate harms to families nearby.

IRA funding should not be used to perpetuate these environmental harms, adverse public health outcomes, and environmental injustices. Instead, NRCS should use IRA funding for projects that truly limit greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural facilities. For example, additional investments in biochar as a conservation practice standard would be welcome, so long as NRCS is also engaged in field research to determine how effective the practice is at increasing long-cycle carbon storage.”