Sherri White-Williamson, director of the Environmental Justice Community Action Network (EJCAN) and longtime environmental justice leader, emailed Southerly back in February to tell us she saw our brochure about a landfill emitting air pollution in Bristol, Va. She wanted to work on something similar for her community of rural Sampson County, N.C.
White-Williamson talked to Southerly for a story on a landfill in Clinton in 2021, and she worked closely with journalist Cameron Oglesby as part of a reporting project for Southerly on the expanding biogas industry in eastern North Carolina.
Immediately, we said yes. The beauty of regional work is that we can share templates and information across state lines, throughout places in the U.S. South dealing with similar challenges of industrial pollution and climate change—especially in Black, Indigenous, Latinx, low-wealth, and rural communities.
Cameron has been reporting on the hog industry in the state for more than a year. Her stories for Grist, Southerly, and Scalawag were an attempt to expose others—students, North Carolinians, Americans—to facts about how state government officials, the swine industry, and power companies are greenwashing biogas.
Biological natural gas, often called renewable natural gas or biogas, is the result of a refining process in which anaerobic digesters—sealed, oxygen-free tanks designed to break down organic waste—collect methane from hog waste and convert it into natural gas for electricity.
There are some immediate benefits to the process. By covering open lagoons filled with hog waste, the systems reduce direct methane emissions and odors. But as Cameron reported, residents, researchers, and farmers say that this rapidly growing industry is mostly a distraction that doesn’t actually address North Carolina’s growing hog waste problem.
In March, Cameron attended a public meeting with about 20 residents, advocates, and church officials at the Lisbon Street Baptist Church in Clinton, N.C. They listened to the North Carolina Conservation Network and the Southern Environmental Law Center explain the swine industry’s influence on the legislature, and regulatory changes due to the general biogas permit NCDEQ released (read our story about that permit here). They, along with researchers from Appalachian State and UNC, discussed water testing information for interested community members, handing out flyers and fact sheets.
We knew the need was much greater than the 20 people in attendance. The county has many populations that are underserved by traditional media: more than a quarter of residents are Black, and a fifth are Latinx. About 18% are 65 or older. It’s rural, with spotty cell service and internet access in many places. Online stories weren’t reaching a lot of people—but print literature from the hog industry often was.
We heard from multiple community leaders and advocates that much of the information shared at DEQ meetings didn’t address the cumulative impacts of the industry—the combined effects of multiple polluting industries and other stressors on the health, well-being, and quality of life in Sampson County. So for the brochure, Cameron defined environmental justice and cumulative impacts, listed out potential air and water contaminants, and gave historical context for different industries in Sampson County, including industrial agriculture, the Clinton landfill, and biomass. She found the places where people can report pollution and file complaints, and the trusted organizations to get involved with, and explained the looming impacts of climate change and severe weather in this already vulnerable part of the state.
And perhaps most importantly, she spoke to residents about their experiences with these industries so that others could know they aren’t alone in their concerns.
We worked closely with White-Williamson to develop a print brochure that explained the health hazards associated with the Sampson County landfill—the largest landfill in the state—wood pellet production for biomass, and hog and poultry farming.
We had a few goals: to create something the community could reference at future NCDEQ hearings or public meetings; to reach people where they were, recognizing that the digital nature of public meetings and journalism is inadequate in aiding those most impacted by the industries we report on; and to spotlight community voices so residents could hear how their neighbors felt about the cumulative effects of all the industry in Eastern North Carolina. We hoped it might inspire others to share their own experiences and join the fight against industrial pollution.
“The brochure is great,” said Denise Robinson, EJCAN office manager. “It provides EJCAN with a multifunctional written educational tool to provide [for] the community. Multiple industries are included in one document, and it captures the essence of the multiple impacts those industries have on the community. The brochure provides a summation of impacts, and it is great information for anyone concerned about not only their health, but the health of others in the community and environmental impacts.”
We printed 500 copies, which EJCAN has been distributing around the county. They recently translated the brochure into Spanish, and will be printing more soon.
We hope that this breakdown of issues and resources will prove helpful for Sampson County residents. A big thank you to Sherri White-Williamson and Danielle Koonce for helping put this together, Blakely Hildebrand at SELC for helping us fact-check information, and to those distributing and sharing them in the community. We look forward to continuing to elevate this issue, to ensure sure they, and people outside of the area, are informed.
Cameron Oglesby is an environmental justice storyteller, freelance journalist, and public policy graduate student based in Durham, N.C.
This project was supported by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, and is part of their POWER project.
read our series
The permit allows farms to bypass individual water quality review and public hearing processes when installing an anaerobic digester.
North Carolina residents, researchers, and farmers say the rapidly growing industry distracts from a massive hog waste problem—and the public health risks that it causes.