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Do hog farms make their neighbors ill? Jurors may decide soon.

Duplin County hog farmer works to balance production and environmental regulations

Video: Chad Herring, a third generation hog farmer in Duplin County, operates a nursery hog farm that keeps young pigs for approximately seven weeks before they are moved to a finishing farm.
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Video: Chad Herring, a third generation hog farmer in Duplin County, operates a nursery hog farm that keeps young pigs for approximately seven weeks before they are moved to a finishing farm.

Four years ago, trial lawyers fanned out through North Carolina’s hog country, seeking local residents to become part of a planned lawsuit against the state’s hog industry. The visitors knocked on doors, asked about odors and medical complaints, and distributed contracts for the residents to sign and become plaintiffs.

The result of that mass recruitment effort is now coming to fruition in 26 lawsuits, the first of which could come to trial later this year. Nearly 500 residents of Eastern North Carolina – many of them African-Americans living within a mile of a hog farm – are seeking financial compensation from Murphy-Brown, the state’s largest hog producer, for alleged aggravations that include odors, nausea, headaches, buzzards and pig carcasses.

The cases that jurors will eventually hear are gradually taking shape through a series of court decisions. Early on, the original out-of-state lawyers suing the hog industry were ejected from the case after being accused of unprofessional conduct that a Wake County judge described as “nauseating.” The firms did not have a license to practice in the state and had signed contracts that the judge deemed unlawful and unenforceable.

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Chad Herring does a morning check of the pigs on his nursery farm in Duplin County. Herring, a third generation farmer, has space for 14,500 pigs at his farm. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The lawsuits have moved to federal court and a federal judge ordered the new lawyers to clean up their legal filings by removing inflammatory references to the Communist Party ties of Murphy-Brown’s corporate owner, the Chinese conglomerate WH Group.

Last October, over the objections of Murphy-Brown, the court allowed investigators to visit the hog farms, take air-quality samples, record video evidence, send in drones and catch as many pathogen transmission vectors – flies – as they could. The lawsuits also allege that the smells, pig transport trucks, open-air lagoons and spraying of waste onto fields are so offensive that people living in the vicinity can’t have visitors to their homes or have outdoor activities. The company says it complies with all existing laws and regulations, rendering the lawsuits groundless.

“We’ve said from the beginning that we believe these lawsuits are without merit,” said Don Butler, director of corporate affairs for Smithfield Foods, Murphy-Brown’s U.S. corporate owner. Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer and processor, was acquired by WH Group in 2013 for $4.7 billion.

“Nobody’s arguing that there’s not odors associated with livestock production,” Butler said. “But it is a safe and manageable system with negligible odors when properly managed.”

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The lagoon at Jeff Spedding’s hog farm in Magnolia, N.C. holds the feces and urine from his growing barns. The effluent is used as a fertilizer. Spedding periodically sprays it on a rotation of crops of wheat, corn and soybeans on his farm. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The federal trials cleared their most recent hurdle Thursday. The state legislature passed proposed legislation protecting hog farms against lawsuits, after lawmakers agreed to remove a provision that would have made the protections retroactive to the Murphy-Brown lawsuits. The bill, which also protects all agricultural or forestry operations, restricts the amount of money people can collect in lawsuits against hog farms over smells and other irritations, but it applies only to future lawsuits, so that Murphy-Brown along with its insurers are still exposed to a significant financial risk from the federal suits.

The measure, which was prompted by the lawsuits against Murphy-Brown, now awaits Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature. Cooper, a Democrat, is reviewing the legislation.

“The Governor understands that there have been a number of changes to the bill and he’s going to take a close look at it,” said spokeswoman Noelle Talley. “He’s hearing from people with a variety of points of view on this issue and will continue to do so as he makes his decision.”

Is there some odor? Yes. But I would like you to close your eyes and imagine how ham and sausage and eggs and fried chicken smell.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican who represents Duplin and Wayne counties

Such cases can inflict considerable financial damage. In 2010, plaintiffs in Missouri won as much as $825,000 apiece in a hog farm lawsuit against Smithfield, and Smithfield later settled another case in that state with multiple plaintiffs for $25 million. Smithfield inherited the lawsuits when it acquired another company.

Republican Rep. Jimmy Dixon is a hog and poultry farmer who represents Duplin and Wayne counties. He sponsored the legislation that the legislature adopted. Campaign finance reports show that farming interests contributed more than $73,000 to Dixon’s political campaign in 2016 with donations from farmers, agricultural organizations and farm equipment makers, as well as Murphy-Brown and Smithfield executives.

Dixon is adamant about protecting North Carolina’s hog industry against what he calls predatory lawyers targeting Murphy-Brown to exploit the company’s Chinese ownership.

“These claims are at best enormous exaggerations and at worst outright lies,” Dixon told senators at a hearing on the legislation. “Is there some odor? Yes. But I would like you to close your eyes and imagine how ham and sausage and eggs and fried chicken smell.”

The lawsuits aren’t the first to raise concerns about North Carolina’s hog farming practices. Amid rising public health concerns about large scale hog operations, North Carolina in 1997 banned the construction of new hog farms that collect swine feces and urine in open-air lagoons. More than 30 scientific studies over the years have documented public health and environmental problems from industrial hog farming in the state.

Ryke Longest, a Duke University law professor, said a lawsuit was inevitable. Longest helped negotiate an agreement between Smithfield Foods and the state attorney general in 2000 to research better hog waste-management technologies.

“I’m not surprised there’s been a lawsuit,” Longest said. “I’m surprised it took so long for one to be filed.”

9 million hogs

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Young pigs, approximately 45 days old, will spend about seven weeks on Chad Herring’s nursery farm in Duplin County, before they are moved to a finishing farm. Herring has space for 14,500 pigs on his farm near Mt. Olive, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Hog industry executives have defended the lagoons, which are sources of nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer, as an effective method for managing massive quantities of hog waste. The alternatives – such as capturing lagoon gases and burning them in power plants – may be cleaner, but they are too costly to adopt without subsidies or grants, said Butler, the Smithfield executive.

North Carolina has just five of these waste-to-energy projects in operation, with two more expected to go online this year, according to the N.C. Pork Council.

As the trials loom, the lawyers have lined up experts, including specialists in odors, public health and land use.

Murphy-Brown is seeking to keep the trials as small as possible so that the jurors are not swayed by seeing a large number of people with complaints, according to court filings. The hog farmers’ lawyers have stated in court they will argue that some of the reported problems can be partly blamed on obesity, smoking, poor health and mold growing in the homes of the residents.

There are nearly 2,300 regulated hog farm operations in North Carolina as of November 2016. One farm can support multiple operations.

There are three types of operations on the farms:

  • Farrow to wean: Sows with piglets up to about 10 pounds or less
  • Wean to feeder: Weaned piglets up to 50-60 pounds
  • Feeder to finish: Feeder pigs grow to market weight

They will display maps showing the presence of other farms in the area that are not tied to Smithfield, but were bypassed in the lawsuit.

“They’re pointing their finger at one farm, but when you look at Google Earth, in most instances there are three or four other hog or chicken farms in the same radius,” said Mark Anderson, a Raleigh lawyer representing Murphy-Brown. “It appears that their focus is purely to implicate farms affiliated with Smithfield.”

North Carolina is home to nearly 9 million hogs on nearly 2,300 hog farms, some of which have multiple lagoons and hog houses holding several thousand animals. In all, Murphy-Brown accounts for about two-thirds of the hogs in the state. The suits naming Murphy-Brown target less than 5 percent of North Carolina’s hogs on 89 of the farms – 14 of which are owned by the company, and 75 by independent contractors that raise hogs owned by Murphy-Brown.

Most of the black people who own the land, they stick a hog farm right next to them.

John McCoy, a farmer near Warsaw

Duplin County is at the heart of the state’s hog producing region, and home to Spedding Farms, where owner Jeff Spedding raises 8,600 hogs. A light barnyard smell lingers in the air but quickly turns into a pungent, acrid odor as one approaches one of Spedding’s two lagoons. Spedding said the odor is mostly coming from the hog house nearby, where powerful fans ventilate the building, but is not noticeable from a distance.

Video: Farmer Jeff Spedding talks about managing the lagoons on his hog farm near Magnolia, N.C. on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. Spedding uses the natural organic fertilizer from the lagoons on his rotating crops of corn, wheat and soybeans.

Spedding, 59, explains that in the lagoon, solid waste sinks to the bottom, and fluid treated by microbes rises to the surface. He pumps the fluid from the surface layer to a sprinkler system that sprays his fields nearby with liquid fertilizer.

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Geese with their young goslings swim in the hog lagoon at Jeff Spedding’s hog farm in Magnolia, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

“I’ve got turtles living in my lagoon,” Spedding said. “I refer to it as kind of like a compost pile.”

Spedding is not being sued, but one of the lawsuits against Murphy-Brown cites Spedding’s farm as a source of problems. Spedding is raising hogs owned by Murphy-Brown.

Smells no secret

Mona Lisa Wallace, a lawyer for the plantiffs, stressed last week after a Senate committee vote that her Salisbury firm, Wallace & Graham, is seeking financial compensation only from Murphy-Brown and not from individual farmers. Wallace’s firm declined to let its clients talk to reporters as the trial approached.

But others in the community were happy to talk about the farms. John McCoy, a 78-year-old farmer who raises cattle and grows corn in Duplin County, said he’d likely join the lawsuit if a lawyer approached him with the opportunity.

“Most of the black people who own the land, they stick a hog farm right next to them,” McCoy said while at the Headquarters Barber Shop in Warsaw, where he had stopped in on a recent Saturday afternoon.

McCoy said the stench is hardly a secret. He gets some relief by working in the cab of an air-conditioned tractor, he said. The lawsuits cite such problems as gagging, vomiting, wheezing and watery eyes from exposure to the airborne ammonia coming from the hog farms.

“It smells all the damn time, especially when it’s hot,” McCoy said. “I ain’t got no choice but to live with it.”

Mark Rice, an extension agent who has worked more than two decades with the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center at N.C. State University, said the technology study undertaken in 2000 found that the best way to treat the waste would require sending the water to water treatment plants, a solution that is not economically feasible.

Rice said the state’s regulations do a good job protecting water quality from the lagoon-and-spray practice, but “don’t do such a good a job on the odor side.” Still, between 2012 and 2016, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality received just 25 odor complaints. None resulted in a notice of violation or a fine.

The N.C. Pork Council, which represents farming interests in the state, attributes the low number of complaints to hog farm practices.

“North Carolina hog farms are among the most highly regulated operations in the state, and odor is included. We must follow stringent setback and buffer requirements. And the lagoon system must be maintained as designed – with layering that reduces odor,” said Andy Curliss, CEO of the N.C. Pork Council.

Longest, the Duke law professor, agreed that standardization at farms could be reducing the problems and thus the complaints. But he added that people may also just be tired of complaining.

“What good is that gonna do?” McCoy, the farmer, said when asked if he has filed a complaint against a hog farm operator. “He’s got to know because when he’s out there, he can smell it himself.”

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski

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