News | April 29, 2021

Lawsuit Says Smithfield Biogas Project Must Fix Water Pollution And Environmental Injustices

On behalf of the Environmental Justice Community Action Network and Cape Fear River Watch, the Southern Environmental Law Center today challenged in the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings four state permits for Smithfield-owned hog operations to use giant pits of untreated hog feces and urine to produce gas while spraying the harmful waste on surrounding areas, which continues a long history of water pollution and harm to the families – disproportionately Black and Brown people – living nearby.

“The law requires Smithfield to use cleaner technology, and Smithfield is not above the law,” said Blakely Hildebrand, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Smithfield must do more to stop its pollution and continued environmental injustices rather than clinging to the cheapest, most harmful method possible to handle untreated sewage—collecting it in pits and spraying it onto fields-- when cleaner technology is available.”

Ignoring long-standing environmental justice and pollution concerns, the permits issued by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality entrench a primitive waste lagoon and sprayfield system at each of the Smithfield-owned operations in which untreated sewage waste from thousands of animals is collected in large pits and sprayed onto neighboring fields.

“The lagoon and sprayfield system is without a doubt one of the biggest threats to the water quality of the Cape Fear Basin,” said Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper at Cape Fear River Watch. “Smithfield is doubling down on this polluting system and making our water and air dirtier, when better solutions are available.”

“Families have been dealing with contaminated water and unbearable odors from Smithfield’s hog operations for decades,” said Maggie Galka, vice chair of the board of EJCAN. “Smithfield promised neighbors it would clean up its mess, and the law requires it to do so.”

The process for trapping methane from the pits of untreated hog feces and urine does not resolve harmful water pollution from the hog operations or foul odors that plague neighbors, and may make these problems worse. Communities of color in eastern North Carolina disproportionately bear the burden of this pollution from industrial hog operations.

Other technologies address these concerns and have been implemented at other hog operations, but have not been widely adopted by the hog industry. The groups are asking the court to require the Department of Environmental Quality to comply with a law mandating cleaner technology to manage hog waste and to take additional steps to curb water pollution from these industrial hog operations.

At the same time, Smithfield is wielding its political power at the N.C. General Assembly to make it easier for hog operations to get approval to produce biogas and eliminate opportunities for impacted communities to voice concerns. Senate Bill 605 would create a fast-tracked permitting program for hog operations producing biogas, eliminates important public participation, and prohibits the Department of Environmental Quality from including important environmental protections in any new biogas permit. This latest effort comes a year after the company successfully lobbied the state legislature to eliminate requirements for operations producing biogas for performance standards for odor and pollution to protect communities. It also follows several rollbacks of laws restricting the ability of neighbors of industrial hog operations to seek redress from the loss of use of their property due to pollution and noxious odors.

On behalf of Clean Air Carolina, SELC recently challenged an air quality permit that was issued for the gas processing plant for this project.

The legal petitions filed are available here:

  • AWI310039(
  • AWI310035(
  • AWI820466(
  • AWS820005(

Source: Southern Environmental Law Center