‘Really terrible science experiment’ leads to weeks-long spill from NC hog-waste lagoon

By Adam Wagner, Raleigh News & Observer
September 6, 2022

The state inspector knew immediately there was trouble at White Oak Farms. When she visited the Wayne County farm on Feb. 3, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality inspector saw a thick layer of hay laden with charcoal-colored foam in a ditch. That foam seemed to have oozed from under a black tarp covering a hog waste lagoon where manure was combined with unusual ingredients like liquified hog carcasses and discarded hot dogs and deli meat in a slurry to generate methane. The farm’s owners, including a former member of the National Pork Board, had not reported a spill.

In a notice of violation dated Feb. 18, two weeks after the inspection, David May, a supervisor in DEQ’s Washington Regional Office, wrote that the inspector couldn’t tell how deep the foam was. But, May wrote, “the inspector stepped in that area sinking at least 4 inches on the edge.” White Oak Farms’ problems were just beginning.

Four months later, on May 30, the black cover ruptured, sending an estimated three million gallons of the gelatinous gray foam across the farm and toward nearby Nahunta Swamp. By the time the spill ended weeks later, enough foam had spilled to fill more than four Olympic-sized swimming pools. At least 37,000 gallons had reached wetlands.

An anaerobic digester on White Oak Farms in Fremont, N.C., tore on May 30, sending foam across the property. N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Environmental advocates learned about the spill by chance. They are outraged that it happened with minimal public notice, particularly considering that DEQ staff were monitoring the spill even as the department was finalizing a permit making it easier for anaerobic digesters to get environmental approval and easier for farmers to install them.

Riverkeepers argue that DEQ’s regulation of White Oak Farms shows the department is not prepared for a potentially exponential increase of digesters on North Carolina’s hog farms. They learned about the White Oaks Farms spill on Aug. 3, more than two months after it began, when Sound Rivers’ Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop flew over the facility. Krop saw that the black bubble that was supposed to be capturing gas appeared deflated, with water pooled across its surface. Krop also noticed that there was no vegetation around the lagoon and that it looked like dirt had been moved around southeast of the digester, where the property borders Nahunta Swamp.

“It just didn’t look right,” Krop said. “It didn’t look like they were functioning properly.”

An anaerobic digester on White Oak Farms in Fremont, N.C., split open in late May, sending foam oozing out for at least three weeks. Shown here on August 3, the farm mixed hog waste with deli meat, hot dogs and liquified pig carcasses to generate methane in the digester.

The Feb. 3 inspection focused on the covered lagoon, a system called an anaerobic digester. Farmers pump manure and other unwanted material into the lagoon, where it decomposes, releasing methane and other gases. Digesters capture those gases, particularly methane, and use them to produce electricity or purified natural gas. In recent years, agricultural groups and environmentalists have debated the use of anaerobic digesters in North Carolina.

These disagreements played out first against the backdrop of the 2021 Farm Act, which ordered the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to write a general permit allowing most future digesters to move quickly through the environmental approval process. The N.C. Pork Council and other agricultural interests argue that covering waste lagoons reduces odor and prevents emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. They also offer farmers a revenue stream.

In a written statement, Roy Lee Lindsey, the Pork Council’s CEO, said, “Digesters are a safe and proven technology that provide significant environmental benefits. While this situation was unfortunate, it is an isolated incident and should not discourage us from continuing to pursue renewable natural gas projects in North Carolina.” Environmental groups argue that digesters effectively lock in what they call a primitive waste management system in which hog manure and urine are washed into lagoons before being sprayed across nearby fields.

The White Oak Farms spill demonstrates the risks digesters pose, said Blakely Hildebrand, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It goes to show that these digester systems aren’t the environmental, climate silver bullet that the hog industry has painted them to be,” Hildebrand said. DEQ issued the general permit on June 30 — a week after inspectors concluded the White Oaks spill was continuing. As they finalized the permit, DEQ officials never revealed publicly that staff had been monitoring an active digester spill.

That general permit would not have covered White Oak Farms’ digester. It only covers systems that process hog manure and urine, said Anna Gurney, a DEQ spokeswoman, not those that add other things into the slurry like White Oak Farms’ liquid pig carcasses, cast-off hot dogs and deli meat. Despite the digester debate, almost nobody knew a North Carolina hog operation was already operating by adding hogs and meat products to the manure under its black plastic balloon.

“We have never heard of this before. We started asking around and nobody else in the environmental advocate world that we’re in has heard of this, either,” Jill Howell, the Pamlico-Tar riverkeeper, told The News & Observer. Howell continued, “It just all seems very strange and like one really terrible science experiment.” A N.C. Department of Environmental Quality inspector holds a handful of the foam that spilled May 30 from an anaerobic digester on White Oak Farms in Fremont, N.C. The farm was mixing hog manure, slurry made from dead hogs and cast-off deli meat in the digester to generate methane.

Deborah and Todd Ballance started hog farming in 1990, first as contract growers. When Coharie Hog Farm folded in 2009, the Ballances bought the pigs on their farm and went independent. “Since the farm was built by my husband’s grandfather our family has always strived to look to the future in order to do what is best for our family, our animals, our community, and our environment,” Deborah Ballance wrote in an email to The News & Observer.

“We believe strongly in being sustainable and that is why we covered our lagoon and captured the methane for electricity.”

The N.C. Pork Report, a N.C. Pork Council trade publication, profiled the Ballance family in 2017, shortly after then-U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue named Deborah Ballance to the National Pork Board. The story says Deborah and Todd met in first grade and farm land passed down by Todd’s grandfather. It also discusses the possibilities their efforts to turn manure into energy offer. Deborah Ballance told the Pork Report, “I think we basically reinvent ourselves every three years. You need to keep your ear to the ground and see what you need to be doing next or thinking about next, and that’s what we try to do.”

The Ballance family had long been exploring how to generate revenue from hog waste, according to decades of permitting documents reviewed by The News & Observer. In 1997, White Oak Farms sought and received a permit for a two-lagoon system that it said would help lower nitrogen levels before the waste was sprayed over nearby fields. The farm planned to keep hog manure from reaching the lagoon and spread it on a field. Evaluations were underway, the permit said, of compacting solid waste and using it as animal feed.

A 1997 application said, “White Oak Farms is very confident that the waste will become suitable animal feed. When it is converted to animal feed it will no longer be land applied.” In 2002, the farm said the manure capture system hadn’t worked as advertised and the equipment used to move liquid between lagoons had proven noisy and expensive to operate. At that point, the farm was permitted to have 5,500 sows.

They wanted more hogs, but were limited by a moratorium on new or expanded hog operations the N.C. General Assembly made permanent in 2007 — a moratorium rooted in The News & Observer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Boss Hog” series that showed how a lack of regulation around the industry was leading to environmental threats near some farms. Another 2007 bill offered a solution.

The Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard supported renewable energy in North Carolina. It also required that 0.2% of the state’s energy come from swine waste by 2018. In 2013, White Oaks Farms asked DEQ: Could it add 60,000 hogs as long as it added an anaerobic digester, controlling odor, groundwater contamination and other environmental impacts?

“Despite a moratorium in place in North Carolina on new hog farm construction, we found the ideal way to expand with finishing floors. We could build a methane digester and sell power to the power company,” the Ballance family wrote in a 2017 USDA loan application. Electricity generated by White Oak Farms could power about 3,000 homes on Duke Energy’s grid, according to the application. “We will take our hog waste and mortality and use it as fuel!

This is the ultimate recycling,” the Ballances wrote. DEQ approved the permit in October 2013. In later permits, the regulatory agency would require the Ballances to expand in phases, starting with 15,000 hogs Hildebrand questions DEQ’s approval, pointing to a rule that any waste management system for a new or expanded hog farm must have a synthetic liner preventing contaminants from seeping into soil or groundwater.

The permit approved by DEQ in 2013 and again in 2017 says the 8.75-million gallon anaerobic digester is “earthen-lined.” “It’s a very prescriptive standard,” Hildebrand said. “These performance standards aren’t vague.” The digester started operating in April 2019.

Randy Wheeless, a Duke Energy spokesman, said the utility has bought power from White Oak Farms since 2019. Over that period, it has averaged enough electricity to power about 400 homes. Energy generated by hog waste, Wheeless said, is more expensive than energy from solar farms or natural gas. Wheeless said, “It’s a premium product because there’s just not that many facilities in a position to do that, and you still have a law in place in the state that says utilities shall buy or secure that type of power.”

In 2020, DEQ approved an updated permit limiting what could go into the digester each day. The farm could add swine waste, up to 20,000 pounds of food waste like hot dogs or deli meat from Smithfield’s Kinston plant, and 210,000 pounds of dead pigs. With that approval, the farm started adding the dead pigs in July 2020.

They later reported the pigs caused significantly higher methane production. Around the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting the farm’s operation. Despite having permission to add as many as 15,000 hogs, the farm instead found itself operating with 100 sows at most.

That impacted the digester, too. In a year-end report, the Ballances wrote, “With swine production and processing decreasing industrywide, the facility has experienced a temporary change from a manure dominated digester feed source to primarily a food waste and mortality source.” In other words, the farm was putting more dead pigs and cast-off meat into the digester than hog waste, despite its permit explicitly stating that manure should be the main additive.

The trend continued throughout 2021, with the number of hogs dwindling from 81 to 50. Still, the digester was operating well on mostly dead pigs and unwanted meat. In 2021’s year-end report, the Ballance family wrote, “From an energy production standpoint, the facility experienced its best period to date.”

The farm submitted that report on Jan. 31, 2022. Three days later, the DEQ inspector found signs of the digester’s unreported spill. During a February inspection, a N.C. Department of Environmental Quality inspector found signs that a discharge of foam from an anaerobic digester on White Oak Farms had not been reported. Those signs included foam on top of the digester. N.C. Department of Environmental Quality

The bubble burst in the middle of the night. White Oak Farms’ digester ruptured around 3 a.m. on May 30, according to a press release the farm sent to local newspapers. Later, the farm would write that “an unexpectedly severe digester foaming event” started with a fissure on the northern face of the black plastic covering.

That’s also where the DEQ inspector identified the previous, unreported spill during her February inspection. A “thick foam” made of hog matter, liquid and gases gurgled out of the digester. According to the farm’s accounts, the foam ran across a field and reached a forest that contains wetlands.

The farm maintains none of the foam reached Nahunta Swamp on its southern boundary. DEQ staff conducted several inspections over the ensuing weeks. On June 3, they saw foam on nearby surface water, possibly including Nahunta Swamp. That foam was cleaned up when staff returned on June 7. The spill was still active on June 23, according to a notice of violation DEQ issued in July.

That notice said DEQ staff had detected “objectionable” odors and air quality and saw foam coming out of concrete structures on the digester’s western edge. The covering on a Wayne County lagoon broke open in late May, sending more than four swimming pools’ of foam across White Oak Farms in Fremont. The damaged anaerobic digester is shown here on August 3. Samantha Krop Sound Rivers What caused the spill is not immediately clear, and the Ballance family did not directly answer an emailed question about why the digester failed.

But an N.C. State professor who studies anaerobic digesters said the dead hogs and cast-off meat could have played a role. Adding materials containing fat, oil and grease to anaerobic digesters can significantly heighten biogas production, Mahmoud Sharara wrote in an email to The News & Observer. But at the same time, long chain fatty acids within the so-called FOG material can cause a layer of foam and crust to develop on top of the slurry. Sharara, an agricultural and biological engineering professor, does not have first-hand knowledge of the White Oak Farms facility.

It is possible, Sharara added, that the higher levels of gas could have been incompatible with existing infrastructure like the generator or motor that processed the gas. Pressure could have built up underneath the cover, he wrote, ultimately causing the rupture and allowing the foam to spill out.

In response to The News & Observer, the Ballance family wrote, “As soon as our cover tore and leaked foam, we called the Department of Environmental Quality and began immediate cleanup. We have repaired our cover and complied with every requirement and suggestion made by DEQ. We will continue to consult with our engineer and scientific consultants to perfect our unique operation.” As of June 13, there were no hogs on White Oak Farms.

After learning of the spill via Krop’s flight, riverkeepers dug into the permit record. They were alarmed that they hadn’t heard of the spill before and that the public notice requirements allowed White Oak Farms to report the spill without specific details. “There was no reference to what was in the wastewater foam, there was no acknowledgment that it was swine waste or dead hogs or food waste product,” Howell said.

“It’s like a bare, bare bones public notice.”

North Carolina laws require any facility that spills more than 15,000 gallons of animal waste into the state’s surface waters or wetlands to issue a press release in both the county where the spill happened and the county immediately downstream. That press release needs to say where and when the spill happened, how much waste was discharged, how long the spill went on and what the facility is doing to prevent further spills.

Hildebrand, of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said White Oak Farms followed the law, but that the law or DEQ should require information about a spill to be spread futher than a public notice in a local newspaper’s classified section.

“Especially in this day and age. I think the law could be better, the requirements could and should be better around public notification,” Hildebrand said, adding that DEQ is able to issue public notification itself or require operators that have spills to issue more widespread notification.

Advocates also wonder whether DEQ can adequately regulate digesters, particularly considering Dominion Energy and Smithfield’s joint $500 million Align RNG initiative that is already forging ahead in Duplin and Sampson counties. With more digesters appearing likely to come online in the coming years, Howell and other advocates are concerned that DEQ field staff have not been specifically trained to inspect them. Gurney, the DEQ spokesman, said the Division of Water Resources “will conduct additional training for regional inspectors as needed as facilities are covered by the Digester General Permit.”

The department’s field staff noted violations at White Oak Farms and issued notices of violation, including the one in February, but Howell argues that wasn’t enough to convince the farm to correct the problems. “DEQ’s enforcement was insufficient in all of this,” Howell said. On July 5, DEQ issued another notice of violation against White Oak Farms. The department said the Ballance family’s improper operation of the digester had resulted in the spill and impacts on nearby surface waters and wetlands.

The state agency said the farm had failed to update its permit to account for operating without hogs for months and had on multiple occasions accepted more than 20,000 pounds of food waste on a given day, exceeding the amounts allowed in its permit. It noted that ammonia levels in wells between the digester and Nahunta Swamp were more than 12 times higher than the allowable concentration. In response to DEQ, the Ballance family said they stopped adding new material to the digester “at least three weeks” before the spill happened.

The Ballance family also mentioned its plans to build another digester. Ideally, they wrote, the manure and meat products that had spilled from the old digester could be pumped into the new one to “seed the digestion process.” The new digester would have a synthetic liner to protect groundwater, as well as a berm on its southern side to contain any future spills.

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