North Carolina lawmakers put off voting Wednesday on a bill that would protect the state’s hog farmers from lawsuits filed by their neighbors over the odors and illnesses they say are caused by hog waste.
Several lawmakers on a House judiciary committee expressed reservations about the legality of the bill, while residents and activists described the stench, gases and flies emanating from hog farms near their homes.
The one-page legislation, House Bill 467, would limit the amount of money people could collect in lawsuits against agricultural operations, capping damages to a property owner’s loss of rental income. If enacted, the bill would apply to any lawsuits pending at the time the law goes into effect. Rep. Philip Lehman, a Democrat from Durham, estimated the cap would limit a typical homeowner to collecting $7,000 for inconvenience and suffering over a three-year period, the state statutory limit on collecting money damages.
“It offends me that you’re changing the rules in the middle of the game, with regards to pending legal actions,” said Lehman, a retired lawyer. “You can’t get a lawyer to look at a case for $7,000.”
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That retroactive provision would ensnare 26 lawsuits pending in federal court, filed by 541 people against Murphy-Brown, a hog producing subsidiary of pork giant Smithfield Foods. The suits allege that 89 farms spray hog waste as irrigation and fertilizer, and the odor wafts across property lines, forcing neighbors to flee indoors, turn up air conditioners or burn incense.
“It’s pig poop and pee in the air blowing around,” said Allie Sheffield of Duplin County. “It corrodes paint on cars. It erodes screens in windows. It prevents going outside. Little kids haven’t had birthday parties outside forever.”
Bill sponsor Jimmy Dixon, a Republican and retired farmer who represents hog-producing Duplin and Wayne counties, defended farmers as “red-blooded Americans” and sources of the nation’s food supply. He said farmers spend huge sums defending themselves against frivolous lawsuits, and added that residents whose lives are disrupted should be compensated fairly, but not overcompensated.
“We are not in any way trying to say there are not nuisance situations out there,” Dixon said. Dixon was the one who suggested the committee not vote on Wednesday, but discuss and bring back another day.
North Carolina is the nation’s second-largest pork producer after Iowa, processing about 9 million pigs annually from 2,100 farms.
Dixon’s legislation is supported by the N.C. Pork Council and provides “reasonable protections” for the state’s pig farmers, said council CEO Andy Curliss in an emailed statement. “It also will close the loophole that encourages lawyers to file nuisance suits – and seek exorbitant fees for themselves.”
Murphy-Brown had asked U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt to limit damages to the loss of rental value, but the judge said in 2015 that North Carolina law is not clear on this issue, so he let the lawsuit stand. In court filings Murphy-Brown said that the residents’ complaints of odors, irritation, asthma and nausea stem from 89 pig farms – 14 of which are owned by Murphy-Brown and 75 of which are independent contractors that supply Murphy-Brown with swine.
“Many of these farms are family-run operations, which are not owned or controlled by Murphy-Brown,” the company wrote. Furthermore, the company said its farms had no permit violations in 2011 and 2012, and while some independent farmers were cited for violations, the majority were for record-keeping deficiencies.
Elsie Herring’s family has owned land that’s now near hog farms since the 1890s. Her 3-bedroom home is one-third mile from hog lagoons and about eight feet from a spray field, she said. The landowners sued because they exhausted other avenues, including the Environmental Protection Agency, state environmental regulators and county health departments.
Herring said she is attached to the family land and has no intention of moving. Instead, she wants the farmers to adopt more effective methods of controlling pig waste, which are available but would be more expensive.
“These facilities are located primarily on people of color’s communities,” Herring said. “They should have a right to live without inundation by animal waste.”