Hundreds file complaints over hog-farm waste

jneff@newsobserver.comJuly 7, 2013 

Nearly 600 residents of Eastern North Carolina have notified Smithfield Foods that they plan to file lawsuits charging that stench, flies and pollution from the world’s largest pork producer have deprived them of the use and enjoyment of their property.

The 588 complaints, known as “farm nuisance disputes,” were filed in the Wake County Courthouse on Wednesday. The filings complain about the storage of hog waste in lagoons and the spraying of liquid manure on adjoining land.

The complaints were filed as the North Carolina General Assembly contemplates changes in the law governing agricultural and forestry nuisance complaints. The state House and Senate have each passed bills tweaking the way farm nuisance complaints are handled. The Senate version, however, contains a clause requiring complainants who lose in court to pay the legal costs incurred by the farmer who defends a suit.

Wednesday’s filings mean that the complainants and Smithfield will enter a mediation process. If that fails, the complainants will file full-blown lawsuits, their attorneys said.

The thought that he might have to pay Smithfield’s legal bills infuriates Don Webb, a complainant and a long-time opponent of the massive hog farms.

“Anybody knows that is wrong,” Webb said in an interview Sunday. “This nation can’t go forward not protecting the middle class and the poor from powerful corporations.”

The original bills, as filed in the House and Senate, closely resemble model legislation published by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a largely private conservative group, backed by major corporations, that proposes model legislation for like-minded lawmakers to introduce across the country.

Calls for comment to Rep. Nathan Ramsey of Buncombe County and other bill sponsors were not returned.

The complaints were filed by two lawyers active in a group known as the Center to Expose and Close Factory Farms: Charlie Speer of Kansas City, Mo., and Richard Middleton of Savannah, Ga. A third lawyer, Mona Lisa Wallace of Salisbury, also is representing the hog farm neighbors. The lawyers declined to be interviewed.

Smithfield Foods had $13.2 billion in sales last year. In May, Smithfield announced in May that it is being purchased for $7.1 billion by a Chinese company, Shuanghui International Holdings Limited.

“Smithfield Foods, Inc. and its subsidiary, Murphy Brown, have received notices from attorneys representing numerous clients in the State of North Carolina who intend to file nuisance lawsuits against the companies and many of our independent contract growers,” according to a statement from Keira Lombardo, a Smithfield spokeswoman. “We are evaluating the notices and will respond in due course.”

Industrial-scale hog farming has been a contentious issue in Eastern North Carolina for decades. In 1997, amid uproar about environmental problems in hog farming, the state slapped a temporary moratorium on new or expanded hog farms that used what is known as the lagoon-and-spray-field method. It’s simple and relatively inexpensive, yet odorous and pollution prone: Waste is flushed from hog barns into open-air lagoons, and the effluent is sprayed on fields.

In 2000, Attorney General Mike Easley negotiated the landmark Smithfield Agreement with the state’s main pork producers in which the company agreed to 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.

Yet in 2013, virtually all North Carolina hog farms still use the same method.

Webb, a former hog farmer himself, owns a fishing camp – a string of small lakes where members fish for bass, brim and crappie – near Stantonsburg in Wilson County.

Webb said Stantonsburg recently spent millions on a sewer system for its 800 residents. But a farm with 3,400 hogs, which might produce the equivalent waste of 10,000 people, is allowed to store its sewage in ponds and spray the contents on fields.

“They need to keep their stench on their own land,” Webb said. “A good American would never stink up another American’s home with feces and urine.”

Another complainant is Elsie Herring of Wallace, who lives on a family plot her grandfather bought 99 years ago. Next door is a hog farm with two hog houses and a lagoon. The farmers spray the hog waste on fields next to the Herrings’ property.

“Sometime it comes over like it’s raining on us,” Herring said. “It holds us prisoner in our own home. It has changed our life entirely.”

Almost 600 residents of Eastern North Carolina have notified Smithfield Foods that they plan to file lawsuits charging that stench, flies and pollution from the world’s largest pork producer have deprived them of the use and enjoyment of their property. The complaints were filed as the North Carolina General Assembly contemplates changing the law to require complainants who lose in court to pay the legal costs incurred by the farmer.

Neff: 919-829-4516

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