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Court upholds North Carolina hog farms' anaerobic digester permits

Addition would allow the Murphy-Brown farms to capture methane and other biogases during waste disposal to use as an energy source.

Ann Hess

December 7, 2023

2 Min Read
National Pork Board

Four Murphy-Brown hog farms in North Carolina received proper permits when they sought authorization to install anaerobic digesters as part of a modification to existing animal waste management systems. This week a state appeals court ruled the permit applications were reviewed appropriately by the Department of Environmental Quality before being issued.

The Environmental Justice Community Action Network and Cape Fear River Watch had submitted four petitions, which were later consolidated for review, to the Office of Administrative Hearings challenging DEQ’s approval. The two non-profit organizations contended the permits would lead to increased levels of pollution and would adversely impact the water bodies the members rely upon.

The petitioners requested that the court reverse the lower court’s order because the DEQ had failed to consider whether Murphy-Brown’s proposed systems were the least adverse system available and if the cumulative effects of the proposed systems were reasonable under Article 21, Part 1 of Chapter 143 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure.

In December 2019, Murphy-Brown submitted permit applications to the DEQ to install new anaerobic digester systems on the Benson Farm, the Goodson Farm, the Waters Farm and the Kilpatrick Farm, located in Duplin and Sampson counties. The DEQ authorized Murphy-Brown to install the new waste management systems at each of the farms in March 2021.  

Prior to the granted permits, the farms had managed a waste management system with open-air lagoons, using wastewater as fertilizer for nearly 20 years. The addition of anaerobic digestion systems would allow the farms to capture methane and other biogases produced during the waste disposal process for further use as an energy source. Following the anaerobic digestion process, remaining liquid waste would then be stored in open-air lagoons and sprayed onto fields as fertilizer.

The permits, however, did prohibit the farms from increasing the quantity of stocked animals or volume of waste flow without prior approval.

In the court’s unpublished opinion, Judge Jefferson Griffin cited a state law that took effect in October, which says the required performance standards in Part 1A are the ones that DEQ must consider when issuing an animal waste management system which uses an anaerobic digester system, including animal waste discharge, atmospheric emissions, and contamination to soil and groundwater.

“In recognition of the importance of animal operations to the economy of this State and the inherent tension in maintaining those operations against our need for environmental safeties, our legislature has designed an alternate permitting process for animal waste management systems. This alternate process seeks to reduce the administrative burden of those permitting decisions while protecting the air and water resources of this State from undue pollution,” Griffin notes.

“DEQ did not err in declining to consider the requirements asserted by Petitioners, because the permits requested in this case fell within the alternate permitting process described in Part 1A of Article 21, not Part 1. We hold petitioners’ appeal is appropriately before this Court and affirm the Superior Court’s order.”

About the Author(s)

Ann Hess

Content Director, National Hog Farmer

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