Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision Friday to veto a bill protecting North Carolina’s hog farms from lawsuits sets up the fourth legislative vote to override a Cooper veto this year. If Cooper, a Democrat, doesn’t muster enough votes, the Republican-dominated legislature will hand Cooper his fourth defeat.
House Bill 467 was passed last month in response to 26 lawsuits pending in federal court against the state’s largest hog producer, Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. In the suits, nearly 500 residents say hog farms have made their lives unbearable from odors, flies, buzzards, pig carcasses and other aggravations.
Cooper said in a statement that the bill, which revises the state’s “nuisance” laws, would take away protections for homeowners. The bill protects hog farms, forestry operations and other agricultural operations.
“Special protection for one industry opens the door to weakening our nuisance laws in other areas which can allow real harm to homeowners, the environment and everyday North Carolinians,” Cooper, the state’s former Attorney General, said in the statement.
The bill restricting such lawsuits has been lobbied aggressively by both sides. In addition to its regular arsenal of lobbyists, Smithfield has enlisted Tom Apodaca, a former Senate Rules Chairman from Hendersonville. Lobbyists for Wallace & Graham, the firm filing the federal lawsuits, include Mike Hager, a former House majority leader from Rutherfordton, and Thom Goolsby, a former state Senator from Wilmington.
“There is going to be intense lobbying on both sides of the issue because the margins were so close,” said Will Hendrick, staff attorney and manager of the Pure Farms, Pure Waters Campaign at the Waterkeeper Alliance, which opposes the bill.
Overriding the governor’s veto would require three-fifths of the votes in both chambers: 72 votes in the House and 30 votes in the Senate. The bill passed the House with 68 votes and with 30 votes in the Senate. But when the House voted on the Senate version of the legislation for final approval, the bill received 74 House votes. Several changed votes and several absences could determine the outcome of the override.
“It’s going to be close, very close,” said Cassie Gavin, a lobbyist for the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club. “It’s closer in the House. There’s more debate in the House.”
The votes largely fell along party lines, with Republicans supporting hog and farming operations and Democrats supporting other local property owners. Still, nine Democrats in the House broke ranks with their party and voted for the bill, while five House Republicans voted against it. In the Senate, four Republicans voted against it, but no Democrats supported the bill.
Gavin said the Sierra Club will focus on contacting members of House, where several votes on the bill resulted in slightly different vote tallies because of House members changing their votes as the bill advanced. In veto overrides, the issue sometimes comes down to taking a stand for or against the governor, said Rep. Ken Goodman, a Democrat from Rockingham.
“I think there are people who might close ranks, on either side,” Goodman said. “Some people think party loyalty is important.”
Goodman was one of the House Democrats who voted for the legislation. He said he tries to vote in the interest of his district, which covers parts of five eastern North Carolina counties, and includes 107 hog farms. He said his vote is not up for grabs.
“I can’t see voting one way and when there’s another vote, voting against my prior position,” said Goodman, a retired retail furniture store executive. “Most people will vote the way they did originally.”
The legislation Cooper vetoed would not affect the pending lawsuits against Murphy-Brown, but it would curtail financial payouts in any similar lawsuits filed in the future. In other states, jurors have awarded residents hundreds of thousands of dollars in similar cases. North Carolina’s legislation would limit the financial payments to several thousand dollars per household, according to some estimates.
The trials could start later this year. The lawsuits paint the hog industry as an environmental and public health hazard. In a court filing Friday, the lawsuits allege that laboratory tests of samples taken from a half-dozen of the affected homes show that “these homes are covered with particles of pig feces.”
Supporters of the farmers say theirs is a vital industry that complies with state laws and regulations, and that the legislation protects farmers from predatory lawyers.
The N.C. Pork Council is rallying lawmakers to override Cooper’s veto. The group’s executive director, Andy Curliss, said he was optimistic that “lawmakers will support agriculture.”
“The ratified bill strikes a balance in providing clarity and certainty to farmers while ensuring that property owners remain protected,” the Pork Council said in a statement. “Our laws offer special protections for a wide range of industries – and farmers are among them. North Carolina’s pork producers follow stringent environmental regulations.”
Amid growing public health and environmental concerns, North Carolina in 1997 banned the construction of new hog farms that collect swine waste in open-air lagoons and spray the nutrient-rich water on crops as a fertilizer. More than 30 scientific studies in recent decades have warned of public health and environmental problems arising from large-scale hog farming in North Carolina.