On Thursday evening, Smithfield Foods announced that it would seal most of its open-air hog-waste lagoons and convert the methane its pigs produce to biofuel. In doing so, the world’s largest pork producer committed to a course of action that, not so long ago, the industry claimed was expensive and unnecessary.
The company patted itself on the back.
“Our investment in these projects underscores our longstanding commitment to sustainability, as well as our promise to produce good food in a responsible way,” Smithfield CEO and president Kenneth M. Sullivan said in a press release. “The scale of these projects is audacious. But, through partnerships with a broad coalition of stakeholders … we’re confident we can bring about sustainable, revolutionary progress in our effort to minimize our environmental footprint.”
Hold the applause, environmental experts say. So long as Smithfield’s farms persist with an anachronistic lagoon-to-spray-field method of waste disposal, they argue, the threats to water contamination and public health will continue.
“It is not a solution, absolutely not,” says Michelle Nowlin, the supervising attorney for Duke Law’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. “Is it an improvement? Anything they do that is beyond a basic hole in the ground and spraying all the manure on fields is an improvement. Is it sufficient to protect the neighbors and the environment? Absolutely not.”
North Carolina is home to more than twenty-one hundred hog farms—and more than thirty-three hundred lagoons—that house about nine million pigs, which often live in crowded barns. Their feces and urine falls through slats in the ground and is then liquefied and stored in huge open-air ponds nearby. When the lagoons fill up, the liquid waste is released as a mist onto nearby fields.
In 2014, more than five hundred neighbors of farms that raise Smithfield pigs sued the company, claiming that this system creates a nuisance that infringes on their quality of life. This year, three of those cases have gone to trial in a federal court in Raleigh—and Smithfield lost all three, with verdicts totaling tens of millions of dollars. The remaining cases are now in mediation.
Smithfield’s announcement comes on the heels of Hurricane Florence in September, which left more than fifty-five hundred hogs dead, three lagoons breached, and fourteen lagoons inundated by floodwater. The Chinese-owned conglomerate framed its new initiative as part of a nationwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2025. To do so, 90 percent of its North Carolina hog farms will be outfitted with “manure-to-energy” technology. Lagoons will be sealed off, trapping methane that will then be transported to a central processing facility and converted to natural gas.
Additionally, Smithfield plans to implement “low-trajectory application tools” as an alternative to current large-scale sprayers that mist hog waste over fields—which plaintiffs in the nuisance lawsuits have complained gets carried by the wind to their homes—and says it will reduce truck traffic, plant more vegetative buffers, and work with universities and other partners to study waste-to-energy technology.
It’s not clear who will pay for all of this—Smithfield or the farmers with whom it contracts. Smithfield did not respond by press time to the INDY’s request for comment.
These changes might reduce odors, says Blakely Hildebrand, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, but they’ll do little to improve neighbors’ health issues or address water pollution because liquid waste will still be applied to nearby fields, and the lagoons—90 percent of which lie in the state’s flood-prone eastern coastal region—will still be vulnerable to flooding.
“The lagoon-and-spray-field system is the problem here,” Hildebrand says. “As long as the lagoon-and-spray-field system is in place, and as long as Smithfield is relying on that system, there will continue to be water pollution issues and environmental justice issues for this industry.”
Alternatives to the lagoon-to-spray-field model have been known for years. In 1999, then-governor Jim Hunt suggested phasing out lagoons altogether. The next year, Smithfield entered into an agreement with the state attorney general to invest in research on waste management alternatives. As part of the agreement, researchers at N.C. State spent years evaluating and identifying “environmentally superior technologies.”
Those technologies went beyond covering lagoons or installing anaerobic digester systems, which convert methane into electricity. They included a system that flushes waste from hog houses and uses chemicals to remove the solids. The remaining liquid then flows through tanks, where bacteria removes most of the nitrogen before chemicals remove the phosphorus.
“Smithfield is well aware of what cleaner, more responsible technology looks like,” says Hildebrand.
Smithfield undertook its Smithfield Renewables initiative a year ago, prior to the verdicts, and plans to make changes to hog operations in Utah and Missouri as well. But critics suspect the company is announcing these moves now under the pressure of the recent jury awards, one of reached an eye-popping $94 million.
If all Smithfield does is cover the lagoons, Nowlin worries that might derail public pressure on the hog industry.
“Right now, public sentiment is that something needs to be done to protect these communities and natural resources, and if you take half-measures, it makes some people think there’s an easy fix, and it’s been taken care of,” Nowlin says. “Taking half-measures may, in the long run, do a lot more harm than good.”
Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss by email at email@example.com, by phone at 919-832-8774, or on Twitter @LeighTauss. Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.
Update: After the print version of this story went to press, Smithfield, via a spokesperson, responded to questions from the INDY.
Responding to a question about whether the company or farmers will pay for the new waste-to-energy projects, the company said: “Smithfield will provide all the infrastructure necessary to bring the energy to market. Without this infrastructure investment, these projects would not be feasible for many farmers. Our contract farmers will make the independent decision to invest or not. According to our analysis, these projects provide an attractive rate of return to farmers. To date, farmer reception has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Asked whether the recent nuisance lawsuits had any bearing on the content or timing of these changes, Smithfield said: “No. Smithfield Foods has been studying and exploring renewable energy projects for decades. These and other sustainability programs are part of our longstanding commitment to innovation and continuous improvement.”
The company also told the INDY “low trajectory application tools more efficiently and precisely apply recycled nutrients to farmland” and included this video demonstrating the technology.