YADKINVILLE — Google, of all companies, last year got into the business of hog poop.
It joined a project started by Duke University, Duke Energy and a Yadkin County farmer to pull the potent greenhouse gas methane from swine waste and use it to generate electricity or simply burn it off. The Internet giant and the university get to claim credit for offsetting the climate-changing carbon emissions generated during creation of the energy they use, and the power company is making strides toward new state requirements for generating electricity from hog waste.
Meanwhile, a couple of long-promising approaches for nearly eliminating pollution and odor from swine waste are inching closer to meeting standards that could force pork producers to retrofit them on most North Carolina pig farms.
Google? Carbon offsets? Manure to electricity? Much has changed in the 15 years since state officials first got serious about finding a cleaner way to treat the waste from North Carolinas 9 million-plus hogs.
But much hasnt.
For the people out there in the communities, nothing is really happening, said Joe Rudek, a senior scientist with the national advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund. They havent really seen any changes in air or water quality.
Thats because North Carolina is still cranking out pork. Its the second-biggest producer of hogs in the nation.
And its because nearly every one of the more than 2,100 hog farms still handles waste with the same odorous and pollution-prone but simple and relatively inexpensive method that has been used for decades. Its flushed from the barns into open-air lagoons, and the effluent is sprayed on fields.
The problems with odor, runoff from the spray fields and spills from lagoons still plague Eastern North Carolina, where most of the farms are located.
The number of lagoons, more than 4,000, is little changed since 1997.
Don Webb, a former hog farmer from Wilson County who became one of the earliest, and feistiest, community activists on the topic, said the years had simply worn down many of those who had been battling hog-waste issues.
Ive been fighting this myself for 25 years, and after all these years, were nowhere, said Webb, 72. These companies, theyve made millions of dollars while stalling for time, and theyre still able to pump feces and urine into those open holes just like they always have.
Meanwhile, the conservative takeover of the legislature, he said, has resulted in cuts and reorganization among state regulators and reduced scrutiny of hog operations. In 2011, for example, the state stopped performing one of what had been two annual inspections at swine farms.
Deborah Johnson, executive director of the N.C. Pork Council, said pork producers would embrace a cleaner, cost-effective technology.
If there is something out there, a (technology) that is affordable to growers and qualifies for permitting by the state, we would see growers that will adopt it, she said.
Authority for a scientist
Back in 1997, amid uproar about environmental problems from the fast-growing business of factory-style hog farming, the state slapped a temporary moratorium on new or expanded hog farms that used the lagoon-and-spray-field method.
In 2000, Attorney General Mike Easley negotiated the landmark Smithfield Agreement with the states main pork producers in which they agreed to several concessions, including paying $50 million over 25 years for environmental projects.
They also funded a $17.1 million research quest for a new method of treating hog waste.
This new method was to substantially eliminate pollutants and odor and completely stop waste from leaking into streams or groundwater. The companies agreed that if one could be found that was affordable, they would install it on farms they own and also would help install it on farms they hired to raise hogs.
The deal gave authority to N.C. State University scientist Mike Williams to set the targets for the technologys cost and performance, which he did with the help of a group of experts from all sides.
He also has the authority to determine when a technology hits those targets, which would force the companies to begin retrofitting it.
He has already named several technologies that must now be used on new or expanded farms.
After several generations of improvement, at least a couple of the experimental systems are getting close to qualifying for retrofit.
Before the official state search began, Julian Barham started tinkering with better ways to treat waste from his 4,000 or so sows at his compact farm near Zebulon.
The farm has become a complex, interconnected system that includes hogs. But somehow the long metal barns where they live feel less like the heart of the operation than simply one of several key components.
At one end of the row of barns stands an above-ground tank the size of a large house. Inside, hog waste and discarded produce are eaten by microbes that produce methane. Also, pathogens and odor are sharply reduced.
Regulators are keen to keep food waste out of dumps, and Barham can make good use of it. He also charges tipping fees to the supermarkets that truck it in.
Heating the tank by burning some of the methane makes the digestion process more efficient. Barham also has a generator and can make power for use on the farm or to sell, though he has decided that for now its not economical enough to operate.
Another system removes ammonia. Some nutrients are pulled from the wastewater to grow vegetables inside a pair of greenhouses, each of which covers three-quarters of an acre.
The treated wastewater is recycled to flush the waste out of the barns into the digester, and the process begins again.
On a recent day, Barham leaned on a door frame inside one of the greenhouses, showing off the lush cucumber vines inside and explaining the components of his man-made ecosystem.
Feed costs have soared in recent years, and much of the profit has gone out of hog production. Some farms have closed under the pressure.
Barham said all the parts not only make the farm a better steward of the environment, but given the current market conditions for hogs, help keep it going.
When I got started in hogs, I had 200 sows and could make a pretty decent living, he said. Now Ive got 4,000 and I struggle.
The cucumbers arent worth much, so the farm has to produce them in large quantity, too. The tipping fees help, but only a little.
Theres just no big, easy money in any one part of it, and you really need to wring every dime out of everything, Barham said.
Williams of N.C. State says that Barhams waste treatment system seems to meet nearly every criterion to be named an official Environmentally Superior Technology under the 2000 agreement. Theres a remaining question about its ammonia reduction, which would take another research project costing probably tens of thousands of dollars, Williams said.
Researchers have tried to secure funding for that a couple of times, but with the decline in interest in hog issues, they havent found a willing source.
A fancier system
Several counties away, near Mount Olive, the other of the most promising technologies is set up on a sprawling farm owned by the Jernigan family that produces not just hogs, but also cattle, turkeys and row crops such as cotton.
The system, which is built around an array of above-ground treatment tanks, seems similar to that for a small municipality. Indeed, it could be used to effectively treat human waste, researchers say.
The system, developed by Terra Blue Inc., was more expensive to build than Barhams, and uses more energy.
But it easily meets the environmental standards, and it also produces a sanitary dry solid that is composted by Terra Blue into high-quality soil additives for gardening and landscaping that can be sold to help shave costs.
Initially, it cost more than four times the state target to build and operate, but after several rounds of improvement, its much closer.
Cost is everything in the pork business. Thats why farmers use the massive, automated barns of factory-style farming to be competitive. From the beginning of the debate over better waste treatment, pork producers have said anything that raises costs for them will give their competition in other states an advantage.
Researchers are evaluating cost data for the latest version of the Terra Blue system; Williams is scheduled to issue a report in early February to the states Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
How to make waste pay
Of the two barriers to developing a suitable retrofit system the ability to clean up the waste and to do it at a reasonable cost the tougher one has long been obvious.
After doing this for 20 years, I can tell you the issue is not so much the technology, Williams said. The technologies are out there that can meet the environmental criteria. It always comes back to the cost.
The forces in play now, though, could flip the balance of the equation. Not with breakthroughs in technology, but a breakthrough in money.
Farmers could be paid, for example, for destroying methane by burning it or using it to fuel a generator. Methane is a particularly powerful greenhouse gas, and preventing one ton of it from being released is believed to be the equivalent of cutting 21 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
For example, the California cap-and-trade program that began this month requires that states biggest polluters to pay about $10 per ton in initial trading for permits for their carbon emissions, or to buy offsetting reductions. Such offsets could be purchased from hog farmers here.
And in North Carolina, where there isnt a mandated carbon trading market, a company that wanted to offset its carbon emissions voluntarily could pay for methane destruction on a farm.
In a sense, thats what Google and Duke University are doing with their $1.2 million hog waste project at Lloyd Ray Farms near Yadkinville.
On a recent tour of the farm, Tatjana Vujic, director of Duke Universitys Carbon Offsets Initiative, said the university started the project not to make money, but to help reach its goal of offsetting all its carbon emissions by 2024. Google, too, is getting carbon credits.
Duke Energy, meanwhile, wanted to get involved as part of its effort to meet a state mandate that utilities start this year to generate some of their electricity from hog and poultry waste.
On the day of the tour, machinery to process the methane before it could be used in the generator was out of commission, but the gas was being burned off at the top of a tall pipe.
The reduction in greenhouse gases is real, measurable and technically could be sold on the new California market for offsets, Vujic said. The farms system is expected to collect and destroy the equivalent of 5,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Some of the technology on the Yadkinville farm, such as the methane-catching digester, is similar to that on Barhams farm near Zebulon.
In warm months, it creates so much gas that its thick plastic cover inflates like a giant balloon. At least part of the answer to how hog waste can be cleaned up could be in that giant bubble.
Its effective enough to meet the state standards for pollution and odor control, and when the generator runs, it creates enough electricity to power five of the nine automated barns where the farms 8,600 pigs are raised.
The partners also are hoping that by being able to use cleaner water for flushing waste from the barns than typical lagoon water, the pigs will be healthier, and mortality rates will fall.
Its just the first generation for the project, though, and the costs are well above those Williams seeks.
Vujic, though, said some of the green-economy aspects seem likely to be part of the solution to paying for better treatment systems.
I think the turning point will be when the economics look good, when the system pays for itself and brings something back to the farm, like carbon credits, electricity sales, lower mortality rates among the hogs, she said. Its sort of like you need this perfect storm of things, all coming together.