14 December 2020
While Missouri Gov. Mike Parson called huge animal confinements “the next generation of Missouri agriculture,” people who must live next them are increasingly fighting back.
The closure of major pork processing plants across the U.S. has state officials and pork producers in South Dakota planning for the worst — the potential euthanization of thousands of hogs that cannot be sold.
RALEIGH, N.C.—Dan Moore's farm marks an abrupt exit from the fringes of suburbia: cookie cooker homes give way as a rolling road weaves you through a dense canopy of deciduous trees.
HARLAN, Iowa—Over a lunch of burgers and pork tacos, Ron Rosmann talks about everything from bluegrass music to one of his favorite authors, Mari Sandoz.
DURHAM, NC—On a school night in early spring, a rowdy collection of environmental activists, local residents, and Duke University faculty and students packed a public forum, railing against the school's plan to build a new $55-million gas plant on campus.
Graphic: Kaye LaFond<p>Undoubtedly, the U.S. biogas market needs a kickstart. According to the <a href="https://www.americanbiogascouncil.org/pdf/ABC%20Biogas%20101%20Handout%20NEW.pdf" target="_blank">American Biogas Council</a>, of all the wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and livestock operations around the country that could economically capture methane, only about 14 percent do so at the moment.</p><p>By sheer number of facilities, the agricultural sector represents the country's greatest room for growth – with 8,700 swine and hog farms large enough to economically produce biogas, but just 265 on-farm digesters operating today.</p><p>Dairy farms make up the bulk of these, most in the Midwest, where farmers have sought to allay neighbor complaints about the smell of manure spread on fields. Dry cow manure is easily collected from already-confined animals and funneled to an above-ground tank, and its energy output is high.</p><p>Hog waste, however, has a high liquid content and produces less gas than dry cow manure. It's typically stored in open-air pits and costlier to move to a separate tank. And though the anaerobic digestion process can take place in a covered pit, or "lagoon," it relies on warm temperatures. </p><p>Those factors help explain why Iowa, which raises more hogs than any other state, has only two swine-waste-to-energy projects – and why Minnesota, which ranks third behind North Carolina in hog production, has none. And they point to how North Carolina – with its warm climate and hefty hog population – has become a pioneer in swine biogas, with 10 digesters now in operation and more soon to come online. <span></span></p><p>Still, with the <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy14osti/60178.pdf" target="_blank">third most biogas resources</a> in the country, North Carolina lags far behind its potential – and its progress toward swine gas has come in fits and starts.</p><p>Some of the reasons are unique to the state: hurricanes and the spread of disease wiped out hog populations, reducing waste and the fuel they could produce. Also, out-of-state developers with expertise in energy but not hogs signed deals that fell through. </p> <p>"They look at a map and they see all the swine farms and they see dollar signs," says Angie Maier with the North Carolina Pork Council. "But as with anything, the devil's in the details. It's very difficult to pull one of these projects off."</p><p>But other hurdles are common for biogas projects across the U.S. Like all emerging renewable energy sources, swine gas is more expensive than traditional fuels – which enjoy direct subsidies and no obligation to pay for the impacts of their pollution. In North Carolina, Duke Energy estimates biogas is roughly three times the cost of natural gas.</p><p>"Biogas systems are no different from any other renewable energy system in that they have to be conceived in a way that makes money," said Patrick Serfass, head of the American Biogas Council. "That's a challenge right now for the industry."</p><p>Policies designed to help level the economic playing field for biogas have been erratic over the last decade.</p><p>After Republicans swept the North Carolina legislature in 2010, they launched regular campaigns to repeal the state's 2007 clean energy mandate – which included a small but crucial swine-waste-to-energy requirement. A bipartisan majority always thwarted these attempts, but the signal to would-be biogas entrepreneurs was chilling.</p><p>"The industry needs the regulatory environment to be consistent," says Brian Barlia of Revolution Energy Solutions (RES), the project manager for one of the state's largest biogas projects to date, in Duplin County.</p><p>Removing a pillar that allowed an RES development in Magnolia, North Carolina, to turn a profit, <a href="https://www.bizjournals.com/charlotte/blog/energy/2015/09/n-c-kills-tax-credits-but-mandates-for-renewable.html" target="_blank">in 2015 lawmakers also ended the state's 35 percent tax credit</a> for renewable energy investment – one of the most generous in the nation. </p><p>Similarly, the U.S. Congress let a 30 percent investment tax credit for biogas projects expire in 2016. After that, Barlia says, "your two main economic drivers have been put to pasture." Without them, he says the Magnolia project – which came online in 2013 – would not have penciled out.</p><p>Selling electricity to regulated utilities also poses challenges. Though a 1978 federal law requires utilities to purchase power from small renewable energy developers, negotiating contracts and connections to the electric grid is no easy task for most farmers.</p><p>"We don't have a lawyer on staff," says Deborah Ballance, who, with her husband, runs Legacy Farms in North Carolina's Wayne County, where a digester system will be up and running in six months. "We had to go out and find someone who was knowledgeable about this. It's not every day you deal with a power company."</p><p>Ballance is one of the few who overcame other obstacles facing farmers considering building and running a digester themselves: lack of capital to invest in a system that can run $1 million or more, and the knowledge or inclination to apply for government grants that could assist them. </p><p>Even hosting an outside energy developer like RES is a significant decision for a farmer. "No matter how good the deal may look," says Gus Simmons, the state's leading biogas engineer, "there's no way that doing any of these projects doesn't change the farmer's world."<strong></strong></p>
With approximately 24,000 feet of underground pipes, the RES biogas plant in Duplin County pumps gas from ten digesters to different domes like this one, which fuels a generator that produces electricity and waste heat. (Credit: Elizabeth Ouzts)<p>One of the greatest sources of optimism for biogas proponents is the trend toward "renewable natural gas": removing impurities from methane and injecting molecules directly into existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure, as opposed to generating electricity onsite.</p><p>Sometimes called "directed biogas," the approach is already being used with swine waste-to-energy projects in Indiana, Missouri and Oklahoma. It means farmers or biogas developers don't have to negotiate with the electric utility to connect to the grid. What's more, burning renewable natural gas in a high-efficiency power plant produces more energy than less efficient on-farm generators could.</p><p>That's part of why Duke Energy plans major renewable natural gas purchases from two projects within the next year. Both in Duplin County, one will become the largest anaerobic digester in the nation – drawing on poultry and food waste as well as hog manure. The other, designed by the same engineer who helmed the Yadkin County project for Duke University and Google, comes online this month.</p><p>"We're trying a lot of technologies to meet our swine goals," says Duke Energy's Payne. "But honestly we're putting a lot of eggs in the directed biogas bucket."</p><p>There is some debate over what standards biogas must meet before it can be injected into pipelines and renewable natural gas still carries some added costs – cleaning the gas isn't cheap, nor is the infrastructure needed to connect farms to existing pipelines. In 2013, however, a Duke University <a href="https://nicholasinstitute.duke.edu/articles/study-evaluates-strategies-generating-electricity-hog-waste" target="_blank">study</a> found pipeline injection of biogas could lower the cost of swine biogas to as little as 5 cents a kilowatt hour.</p><p>Renewable natural gas also opens the door for additional incentives – particularly critical in the wake of expired tax incentives for swine waste to energy. If the biogas is ultimately converted to transportation fuel, it can qualify for credits under the nation's Renewable Fuel Standard. </p><p>"That credit has a value, and it's a game changer. You can sell your [unit of gas] for $43 as opposed to three [dollars]," says Serfass of the American Biogas Council. Thus, "most people are looking at renewable natural gas these days just because of the enormous revenue upside."</p><p>Yet Duke University believes biogas will never really take off in the state – or perhaps the country – without an additional catalyst: Such as a wealthy school willing to pay top dollar for nearly as much biogas as state law already requires.</p><p>Tanja Vujic, who works in the office of the executive vice president at Duke University, and helped get the Yadkin County project off the ground, emphasizes their procurement would be on top of the existing swine gas requirement.</p> "There's not been a demand signal like this before, and there's not been such a motivated buyer before," she says. "Those two things together could really accelerate things."
One Saturday in the mid-1990s, Elsie Herring was sitting on her mother's screened-in porch with her family, "enjoying being outside, as we had done for years," she says.
A manure spreader applies waste to a farm field. (Credit: Johns Hopkins University)<p>Even 400 years ago, the stench from hog farms was considered a nuisance. In William Aldred's Case, filed in England in 1611, the Court of the King's Bench ruled that "an action on the case lies for erecting a hogstye so near the plaintiff that the air thereof was corrupted."</p><p>Fast-forward several centuries. There are a lot more hogs. The number of swine raised and sold in the United States has increased 25 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to the latest figures available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture census. But the number of farms has <a href="https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Hog_and_Pig_Farming/#top_states" target="_blank">decreased 29 percent</a> over the same period, a result of the consolidation of family farms into larger enterprises that are in the hands of a few conglomerates. </p><p>As production has grown and consolidated anti-nuisance laws have proliferated as an outgrowth of Right to Farm Acts—passed in some form in every state since the 1980s. Although the content of these statutes vary, many did not originally prohibit nuisance lawsuits. </p><p>Over the past 15 years the American Legislative Exchange Council—a coalition of conservative politicians and large corporations and interest groups, including the National Pork Producers Council—has drafted model anti-nuisance laws for states to use. Some states, such as Arkansas and Indiana, have adopted them nearly verbatim.</p><p>Agricultural legal experts say that states have generally tightened anti-nuisance laws after a farm or company loses a court case. These initiatives have taken the form of right-to-farm acts, legislation designed to limit recovery of damages in nuisance actions, and even constitutional amendments, according to Cordon Smart, who last fall wrote an historical analysis of the Right to Farm Act in the<em> North Carolina Law Review</em>. </p><p>As the livestock industry has consolidated, nuisance suits are targeting primarily the behemoth corporations that contract with local farmers. And these corporate owners have immense political power to convince state lawmakers to pass legislation favoring them. </p><p>For example, in 2010, a Missouri jury awarded neighbors $11 million in a nuisance suit against Premium Standard Farms, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. Shortly afterward, the Missouri legislature capped the damages that could be recovered in nuisance suits to the fair-market value of the affected property, according to the legal journals compiled by the National Agricultural Law Center.</p><p>In many instances, these laws are used to thwart pending cases. For example, in Texas, plaintiffs who lose their cases have to pay defendants' attorneys' fees if the suits are deemed frivolous.<br></p><p>The top pork-producing state in the nation, Iowa, is also a legal minefield for agribusiness, farmers and their neighbors. At least 24 nuisance suits — 21 involving hog farms — have been filed since 1990, with payouts exceeding $1 million in compensatory damages for pain and suffering. </p><p>Iowa has since amended its Right to Farm law to immunize farms against nuisance suits if they are located in an area zoned agricultural. And like North Carolina, its statutes have capped damages for pain and suffering, and prevented multiple lawsuits from being filed against a single operation. </p><p>Iowa law provides nuisance suit immunity to farms that operate by "industry standards," which are open to definition. And now suits generally can't be filed to pre-empt the construction of large operations.</p><p>Andy Curliss, executive director of the NC Pork Council, says farmers prefer to stay out of the courtroom altogether. "We continue to believe that any concerns about how farms are managed can be best resolved outside the courtroom," he says. </p> But in North Carolina increasingly neighbors are looking to resolve things in the courtroom.
The third reading of HB 467. (Credit: Alex Boerner)<p>The Civil War ended just 26 years before Elsie Herring's grandfather bought his first tract of land in rural Wallace, North Carolina. By 1897, he owned 60 acres, and here, on the family farmstead, where relatives have built a cluster of homes, is where Herring, who is 68, has lived for more than half her life.</p><p>Life was routine until the 1990s, when industrialized hog farms moved nearby. She complained to state environmental officials, her representatives, anyone who would listen. After more than five years, the company that owned the hogs planted trees to try to filter odor and particles from wafting onto Herring's property. </p><p>But, Herring says, "my family and I are still suffering."</p><p>The wind, she says, still carries the odor and microscopic particles of waste to the family homes. The trees are dying, and she can see the spray fields from her house.</p><p>Herring is among the hundreds of plaintiffs suing Murphy-Brown. But it's unclear if these cases will proceed. The law passed in North Carolina earlier this year further strengthened the state's anti-nuisance statutes and now restricts the amount of compensatory damages people can recover in private nuisance suits related to odor, flies and spray fields, as well as forestry production. (The latter is to protect wood pellet plants from nuisance suits.)</p><p>Plaintiffs can still ask a judge for an injunction, sue for trespass and punitive damages, but the compensation for quality of life issues is now capped. The dollar amount is limited to the reduction in the fair market value of a residents' property, which has already decreased because of its proximity to a swine farm. </p><p>Studies in 2003 and 2005 calculated that homes within a mile of a 10,000-head hog farm decreased in value by 6.2 percent. This decrease has especially dire effects in the heart of hog country. In Duplin County, the largest pork-producing county in the nation, a quarter of all residents live at or below the federal poverty level, according to census data. The North Carolina average is 15 percent. Nearly half of the county's residents are black or Latino.</p><p>Existing nuisance lawsuits can continue — language to apply the law retroactively was scrapped. However, after the law was passed — legislators overrode Gov. Roy Cooper's veto — Murphy-Brown entered a motion in federal court to apply the law retroactively. The company argued that lawmakers intended to include this provision, even though it was explicitly struck from the final bill language.</p><p> But last week Senior U.S. District Court Judge Earl Britt week ruled that the 26 nuisance lawsuits could proceed to trial. On Dec. 4, the court will hear Murphy-Brown's motion for separate trials, which would add to the expense and complexity of the proceedings. In his order, Britt also asked both sides to consider a mediated settlement. </p><p>Curliss of the NC Pork Council points out that neighbors may also sue a farm if it is negligent or has harmed their health. There is no limit on damages for those types of lawsuits.</p><p>In addition, the current law does not prohibit a neighbor from seeking injunctive relief, such as asking the court to require the farmer to change certain production practices or install additional equipment on a farm. "None of the current lawsuits have sought injunctive relief," Curliss said. "They only seek money."</p><p>Mona Lisa Wallace, attorney for many of the plaintiffs, says that while they could sue for punitive damages or injunctive relief, there is a higher legal threshold for these claims. For example, they would have to prove fraud, malice or willful or wanton conduct.</p><p>"The [nuisance lawsuit] bill demonstrates the Legislature's complete disregard for the disproportionate racial impact the statute will have," says Elizabeth Haddix, senior attorney with the UNC Center for Civil Rights. In 2014, the Center filed a Title VI complaint with the EPA's Office of Civil Rights, alleging state environmental officials had not considered the racial makeup of neighboring communities in approving general permits for swine farms. The complaint is still in mediation.</p><p>During a House floor debate earlier this year on the nuisance lawsuit bill, Republican Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a turkey and hog farmer from Duplin County, dismissed concerns that large operations were infringing on their neighbors' quality of life or property values.</p><p>"My children and grandchildren have walked gleefully through my hog and turkey houses," Dixon said. "These allegations are at best exaggerations and at worst outright lies. When you talk about spraying a fluid in people's houses and on their cars, that does not exist.</p><p>"We should get down on our knees and thank our heavenly Father. People put up with production to enjoy the benefits of consumption."</p>
As doctors in the Netherlands prepared a young girl for open heart surgery in the summer of 2004, they made a discovery that confused her medical team.
LIME SPRINGS, Iowa—Sue George's home is pure country charm.
LIME SPRINGS, Iowa—As large hog barns spring up around his house, Jerry George sums up the major reason he and his wife, Sue, are in opposition: "It's water. My number one concern is water."
Jane Worthington moved her grandkids to protect them from oil and gas wells—but it didn't work. In US fracking communities, the industry's pervasiveness causes social strain and mental health problems.
"I was a total cheerleader for this industry at the beginning. Now I just want to make sure no one else makes the same mistake I did. It has ruined my life."
We tested families in fracking country for harmful chemicals and revealed unexplained exposures, sick children, and a family's "dream life" upended.
EHN.org scientific investigation finds western Pennsylvania families near fracking are exposed to harmful chemicals, and regulations fail to protect communities' mental, physical, and social health.
"Once they had the results of our study [families] felt like they had proof that these chemicals are in their air, their water, and making their way into their bodies."