The North Carolina legislature neared final approval on Thursday of its annual farm bill, which includes the creation of a streamlined method for hog farms to receive environment permits to convert liquid waste into consumer natural gas.
The House voted 75-32 in favor of the measure, which makes changes in more than a dozen categories related to agriculture. It now returns to the Senate, which approved a similar version last month.
“This bill is a common-sense approach to maintaining a safe, economical sustainable supply of food,” Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, said during floor debate.
The provision receiving the most discussion in both chambers involved the proposed “general permit” that the Department of Environmental Quality would issue for animal farm operations that allow the owner to construct and operate a farm digester system. Currently these operators seek individual permits, of which about two dozen have been issued over the past decade.
Interest is growing in biogas because of the potential revenue source. Pork giant Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy already are developing a project in which methane gas trapped from covered lagoons storing the waste will be pumped to a refining facility proposed in Duplin County. Bill supporters said the biogas process is similar enough with any lagoon and spray-field waste system for general permits to make economic and regulatory sense.
Some Democrats complained the permit process would be too swift and could omit concerns over air quality related to the methane gas collected and shipped.
The legislation also doesn’t address efforts started over 20 years ago to improve waste technologies that would make hog manure less damaging to the environment, but so far has not been deemed economically feasible. Residents living near operations have complained for years about the stench and the air, resulting in expensive litigation.
Rep. Kandie Smith, a Pitt County Democrat, pointed to her worries that the paths of some biogas pipelines could run through communities with disproportionate minority populations.
“This bill adversely affects the minority population and it is not inclusive of addressing those concerns,” Smith said. “We cannot leave these individuals behind.” An amendment by Democratic Rep. Raymond Smith of Wayne County to remove the general permit directive was defeated.
But more than a dozen House Democrats joined Republicans in backing the full bill. Rep. Billy Richardson of Cumberland County voted for the bill after receiving assurances from Dixon that encouraging biogas operations would result in fewer pollutants emitting from lagoons that would now be covered.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Richardson said. Any final approved legislation would go to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s for his consideration.
The bill also makes clear that fires for cooking and warmth are exempted from certain open-burn bans. It would increase punishments for stealing timber and clarifies overtime compensation rules for state Forest Service firefighters. The House version of the bill took out a Senate provision that would have addressed details of the state labor commissioner’s actions when complaints are filed by employees in the state alleging discrimination or retaliatory actions by employers.