Politics & Government

NC senators want to shield some hog farm records from public view

Records on hog farms held by soil and water conservation districts would be secret under a proposal legislators are considering.

Senate Bill 315 would also allow the hog farms to install waste-to-energy equipment on their farms to capture gas from hog lagoons. Critics said the provision is an end-run around a 2007 moratorium on new and expanded lagoons. The NC Pork Council said the change would write into law practices the state is already allowing.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, called the effort to shield hog farm documents “a pretty drastic change to our open records laws.”

“It seems fairly broad to me so that you’re declaring as private records inspection reports, design documents for new facilities, a whole range of things,” Woodard said at a Thursday meeting of the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Sen. Harper Peterson, a Wilmington Democrat, said there’s a public concern about the environmental impacts of agriculture.

“I just don’t know what’s to hide,” he said.

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said the change “will mirror federal law,” and proponents weren’t trying to hide anything.

In an email, Jackson’s research assistant said farmer records created “as a result of voluntary participation in USDA programs are kept confidential” under a 2008 federal law.

Brooks Rainey Pearson, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the committee that the bill would undermine transparency and environmental protection.

NC handling of waste pits

In 2007, the legislature put a permanent stop to new permits for open-air waste pits at hog farms. Industrial hog farms collect waste in lagoons, and periodically spray the contents on fields.

The bill would allow for new waste permits if they don’t allow farms to hold more hogs.

The change would “lock in” the lagoon and spray-field method of hog waste disposal that the legislature promised would be phased out, Pearson said.

“Existing entities could make any changes they want without converting,” she said. “North Carolina deserves better.”

Angie Maier, a lobbyist for the NC Pork Council, told the committee that the change would make it clear that farms could make changes to allow for the collection of biogas from hog waste.

The state has modified 21 permits to allow biogas collection since 2011, Maier said, and more farms are interested.

The Optima KV project in Kenansville sells biogas produced from pig waste and sells it to Duke Energy, The News & Observer has reported.

“The moratorium was never meant to tie farmers’ hands,” Maier said.

In an interview, Pearson said that the change was broadly written and would allow farms to make changes beyond biogas collection. “Our read is you can make all sorts of changes to the operation without meeting the requirements of the moratorium as long as you don’t increase your number of head,” she said. “You can create a new lagoon without having to meet the standards.”

The committee is set to vote on the bill Wednesday.