Natural gas facility approved for Surry County

Published 9:27 am Monday, June 6, 2022

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the proposed location of Align’s North Carolina facility.

Surry County’s supervisors gave final approval June 2 for a controversial natural gas project.

Align RNG, a joint venture of Dominion Energy and Smithfield Foods, had sought approval to build a regional processing facility that would turn methane from hog manure into pipeline-quality natural gas.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

With one seat vacant and Supervisor Timothy Calhoun having recused himself owing to his employment with Dominion, the remaining three supervisors on the ordinarily five-member board voted 2-1 in favor of a conditional use permit to allow the facility on an agricultural-zoned 22.8-acre parcel near the Surry-Sussex county line.

The project would serve as a hub for participating Smithfield Foods Farms in Sussex, Surry, Isle of Wight and Southampton counties.

When hog manure breaks down, it emits methane, a component of natural gas that’s also a greenhouse gas. Currently, this methane is emitted into the atmosphere, but according to company officials, it can be captured using an anaerobic digester and covered lagoons — and piped to the proposed facility for processing.

There, the collected gas would pass through membranes to remove hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide, leaving a 99% pure product that can be fed into an existing natural gas pipeline intersecting the site.

According to Align, the reduction in greenhouse gasses from participating farms would be roughly equivalent to taking 22,000 vehicles off the road. The proposed facility would also bring over $243,000 per year in tax revenue to the county starting in 2023 according to an economic and fiscal impact report prepared for Dominion.

But an estimated 12 tons of extracted carbon dioxide would be re-released into the atmosphere every year. Company officials have also acknowledged not all of the extracted hydrogen sulfide would be turned into solid sulfur and hauled away.

The amount that escapes the membranes would be fed into a thermal oxidizer — essentially an incinerator — where intense heat would transform the gas into less-harmful sulfur dioxide. Align anticipates the facility emitting around 8 tons of sulfur dioxide per year, though company officials have assured the facility will be designed not to emit odors.

The company’s latest amendment to its application, in which Align pledges to install sound walls and report the volume of natural gas and sulfur produced, didn’t placate opponents of the project during a public hearing Surry’s supervisors held prior to voting.

Abram Ketchum of Dendron called the estimated tax revenue “nothing” in the “big picture of things” compared to “what it’s going to do to the value of our homes.”

“This is not what the people want,” Ketchum said. “This should never have made it past the Planning Commission.”

Surry’s Planning Commission voted unanimously in favor of the project last fall despite similar objections during its own public hearing. The June 2 hearing was the supervisors’ second on the matter, having previously solicited public input — and heard opposition — in January.

Dianne Cheek, a member of Surry’s Planning Commission, then told the supervisors she would have voted against the proposal if she’d had access at the time to the same information presented at the June 2 meeting, namely a map showing the number of houses within half a mile of the site.

“My driveway is actually a third of a mile,” Cheek said. “I know personally I would not want this that close.”

While the majority of speakers that evening were similarly opposed, a few spoke in favor, among them Kevin Monahan of the county’s Carsley District, who called the project “good for the environment” and “good for Surry County taxes.”

Following the latest hearing, Supervisor Michael Drewry made a motion to deny Align’s request, citing the repeated opposition from residents and a lawsuit the company settled with North Carolina-based environmental group Clean Aire NC in September concerning alleged violations of the state air quality regulations at a similar processing facility at the border of the state’s Duplin and Sampson counties. But with no other board members willing to second, Drewry’s motion failed.

Drewry provided a copy of the referenced settlement agreement to The Smithfield Times the following afternoon. According to the court filing, Align agreed to request North Carolina’s Division of Air Quality modify the site’s permit to “add limitations on raw biogas flow,” impose “reporting requirements” for the facility’s sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide emissions and “ensure a program of methane leak detection and repair is implemented at all farm operations supplying biogas” in exchange for Clean Aire NC agreeing to drop the case.

Supervisor Robert Elliott then motioned to approve Align’s requested permit, which Chairwoman Judy Lyttle seconded. The motion passed 2-1 with Drewry casting the sole “no” vote.

“I’ve talked to the citizens that surround it, they do not want this,” Drewry said. “And not all of them live in Surry. A lot of them, and over half of them, live in Sussex.”

Lyttle, however, argued Align had made concessions based on the feedback received at the January public hearing

“I would have to support it,” said Lyttle. “It’s a project that will, I think, make a difference for the gasses probably coming from those hog farms. I remember we went through an extensive, extensive process when the hog farms came. There were the same types of rhetoric, and one of those was the smell.”