Lawsuits Against North Carolina Hog Farms Could Help Reform State’s CAFO Industry
Hearings begin on first case against Smithfield Foods subsidiary
UPDATE: On Thursday, April 26, jurors awarded $52 million, mostly in nuisance payments, in the first case by 10 plaintiffs living close to hog CAFO
Roughly 4,000 pink-tinted pools containing pig feces, urine, and blood, are scattered throughout the eastern North Carolina landscape. An estimated nine to ten million pigs in state’s hog farming industry, which mainly comprise large factory farms, produce the untreated waste poured into these cesspools, equivalent to the waste of 100 million humans. The powerful stench from these pools has been making life miserable for nearby residents. So much so, that they have taken their complaint against the hog farms to court.
Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance
Last week, a federal court in Raleigh kicked off the first trail in a series of lawsuits against Murphy-Brown LLC, the hog-production subsidiary of the Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, which oversees the production of many of these industrial-scale pig farms in North Carolina. The suits could lead to long overdue changes in how these factory farms operate in the state.
The lawsuits, 26 in all, by over 500 people living near industrial pig farms in the eastern North Carolina, were filed in 2014. The plaintiffs allege the stench and pollutants from the open hog-waste pools have been detrimental to their health and wellbeing. The waste from these pools is usually sprayed onto nearby fields as fertilizer. The plaintiffs complain that that malodorous mist from the spray wafts over to their properties; that improperly dumped rotting-pig carcasses add to the general stink that makes it impossible to spend any quality time outside.
This first trial concerns 10 plaintiffs in Bladen County who live near Kinlaw Farm, which has three open-air cesspools. The farm owners, who raise some 15,000 hogs each year under contract with Murphy-Brown, are not defendants in the case. This suit, like the other 25 as well, is against Murphy-Brown since the company sets rules for how these farms should operate.
“I’ve never been to hell before, but it’s like living in hell,” says Rene Miller, a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits. “I have no control over my own land, my own house, because of the scent, the spray. I have rats coming in my house now.”
Miller explains that living so close to the hog farming waste lagoons has contributed to serious health problems for her and her neighbors. She cites asthma, sinus problems, high blood pressure, and cancer as common symptoms experienced by individuals living near the hog operations. The waste is sprayed just 200 feet away from her house.
“Its an odor worse than a decomposed body, that’s what I smell in my home and the whole road I live on,” she says.
Photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary
Michael Kaeske, a Dallas, Texas-based lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told jurors last week that DNA tests found bacteria from swine digestive systems on the homes of all ten plaintiffs.
A 2016 report by the Duke University Medical Center found that living near these concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs causes upper-respiratory problems, high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, and exposure to a number of carcinogens.
The health effects caused by pollutants from North Carolina’s pig waste pools are more widespread due to a lack of environmental regulation and frequent pollution to nearby water sources. An analysis conducted by WaterKeeper Alliance found that out of 2,246 hog CAFOs in North Carolina, only 12 have been required to obtain permits under the Clean Water Act.
“The industry is more heavily concentrated here than any other place on Earth. There are more hogs, more densely concentrated than anyplace else, says Kemp Burdette, Riverkeeper for Cape Fear River, a blackwater river in east central North Carolina. (The Cape Fear River Basin has more factory farms in than any other place on Earth.) “Anytime you get that many animals together in a small area, you’re going to have problems,”
“I go out to take water samples and frequently find levels of bacteria dozens, hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of times higher than the safe limit set by the state,” Burdette says. “And these are in areas where the only possible source of these pollutants are these factory farms.”
Environmental racism is an issue at the forefront of these lawsuits, as these factory farms are predominantly located in communities of color. A 2014 study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found black people are 1.54 times more likely to live within three miles of an industrial hog operation in North Carolina, with Native Americans 2.14 times higher than non-Hispanic whites.
“People feel like prisoners in their own homes,” says Naemma Muhammad, co-director of North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. “People can’t open their doors and windows anytime they want to. They have to negotiate with the air to decide when is the best time to go outside. They can’t hang their clothes on their clotheslines anymore because the waste will get in their clothes and they’ll have to redo their laundry. And if they wear the clothes, they’ll smell like it all day. They either have to go to laundromats or purchase washers and dryers.”
Muhammad explains this places even more strain on residents in these low-income communities who already live on fixed budgets. “They can’t enjoy their property the way they meant to when they moved there and property values are being constantly depleted because of these dirty industries,” she says.
It’s not just residents that suffer from the waste produced by this industry, Muhammad notes. Large companies like Smithfield Foods use contract farmers to operate many of these facilities (as is the case with Kinlaw Farm), which pits these individuals, who are basically trying to earn a livelihood, against their neighbors. The companies own the animals, feed, infrastructure, and homes of these contract growers. “They tell [the farmers] it’s not economically feasible to implement clean technology, yet Smithfield Foods was bought in 2013 for $4.7 billion on top of the regular profits these operations churn out regularly.” (Smithfield was purchased by the Chinese corporation WH Group, the world’s largest pork producer.)
North Carolina is the second-largest pork producer in the country and given the state’s laws favor corporate-owned farms, it has been hard to bring Smithfield to book here. The company has been attempting to get these suits dismissed since they were filed four years ago, claiming that it was protected by North Carolina’s right-to-farm laws and hadn’t broken any state regulations.
Smithfield also has enormous lobbying power in the state. Just last year, in an attempt prevent further lawsuits like these, the North Carolina general assembly passed a law that limits damages in future lawsuits by property owners near hog farms. The law — which was drafted by politicians who have received big donations from the pork industry — says that a court cannot award a property owner who claims that a nearby farm or forestry operation has caused nuisance, damages above the actual market value of the property.
Since the law doesn’t apply to lawsuits already in progress there’s still hope that the verdicts and damages awarded in these 26 cases could prompt better regulation of hog farms in North Carolina.
The hearing on the first suit is expected to last about six weeks after which the next suit in the series will be taken up.
Smithfield Foods did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.