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Key Questions Unanswered as Smithfield Foods Unveils New Plan to Capture Hog Farm Methane

Credit: iStock

by Lisa Sorg, NC Newsline
March 21, 2023

Giant pork producer asks Northamption County officials to sign off on proposal that would transport gas to Virginia, but declines to disclose key details

Smithfield Foods and its affiliate Cardinal Bio-Energy plan to build two large swine gas projects in Northampton County and inject the gas into the Transco Pipeline, which will carry it out of the state and into Virginia. Northampton County, shown in red

Company officials appeared before the Northampton County Commissioners Monday night to request a special use permit for the projects. However, Smithfield sidestepped key questions and omitted important information – including the Virginia detail – about the proposals. 

The commissioners requested more information and tabled a decision until at least next month.

The methane capture systems would be installed at several Smithfield-owned facilities: on Spud’s Lane between Seaboard and Pleasant Hill, and on Barrow Road in Garysburg, near the Virginia border.

From there, the swine gas would be trucked to a processing plant and injected into the Transco line, Joe Birschbach of Cardinal Bio-Energy told the commission.

However, neither Birschbach nor Kraig Westerbeek, vice president of Smithfield Renewables, disclosed the location of the processing plant, which upgrades the swine gas for use in natural gas pipelines.

Maps filed with Northampton County show a proposed “gas purification” facility at the Garysburg Farm; the Transco pipeline runs along the southside of the Pleasant Hill farm about 13 miles away. 

That map was not presented Monday night; the commissioners said they did not have the full packet of information from the planning board, which gave the project a favorable recommendation. 

More than 100 residents packed the commission chambers to hear about the proposal. Several said they only recently learned of Smithfield’s plans. Adjacent landowners had been notified, as required by law.

“We haven’t been trying to hide it,” Westerbeek told the commission. “But we’ve not reached out to the community.”

To capture methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from swine waste lagoons, farms cap them in a process known as anaerobic digestion. From there, the methane is piped to a collection system. Depending on the farm, the gas can be used onsite for electricity, or sent via pipeline or by truck to an upgrading facility. Once the impurities are removed, the swine gas is injected into a natural gas pipeline.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality would be in charge of issuing state permits for the project.

Westerbeek also told the commission there can be a “perception of odor” from swine farms, and “to the degree there is that perception,” the methane capture system reduces the smell.

Yet company officials did not fully describe the environmental impacts of these operations. While it is true that some methane will be captured from capped lagoons, at least one is uncovered and used for excess feces and urine. Methane is still emitted from that lagoon.

The farms also still spray the waste on nearby fields, which creates odor. That waste can also seep into the groundwater and eventually, into drinking water wells.

Ammonia concentrations can also increase from the caps, Blakely Hildebrand, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the commission. 

Westerbeek said company testing has not shown higher ammonia levels, but that Smithfield would install diffusers on the lagoons to address those concerns.

Asked by a commissioner if these systems created “hazardous situations,” Westerbeek replied “no.”

Yet just last year in Wayne County, the cover of the 970,000-gallon anaerobic digester ruptured, sending millions of gallons of foam — essentially liquified animals, manure and meat — into nearby wetlands. State officials fined the farm owners, Todd and Deborah Ballance, $34,000.

The corporate structure of Cardinal Bio-Energy is also complicated. Birschbach is a top official at Roeslein Alternative Energy, based in Missouri, according to NC Utilities Commission documents, and a contact person for Cardinal Bio-Energy. 

But Cardinal’s offices are listed at Smithfield Foods’ address in Warsaw, according to public records.

The NC Utilities Commission has approved Cardinal Bio-Energy to participate in a pilot project for swine gas capture in the southern part of the state. Under the plan, documents show that Cardinal would pipe methane from 15 farms in Robeson County and ship the gas to an upgrading facility in Laurinburg, in Scotland County. 

The 15 farms are not identified, but Smithfield owns several near Maxton, in western Robeson County. 

There is no mention of the proposed Northampton County projects in Cardinal’s filings with the Utilities Commission.

Approached after the meeting, Birschbach told Policy Watch that since the Northampton County projects “would be interstate” – the gas would be shipped between North Carolina and Virginia – the Utilities Commission would not have jurisdiction. That approval would fall under the purview of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC.

Policy Watch asked for other information from Birschbach, but Westerbeek intervened, saying they would not be taking questions.

The Northampton County Commissioners will discuss the proposal again at a work session on April 3 at 6 p.m. No vote will be taken that evening.

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.