Politics & Government

Hog farmers win new protections as lawmakers override Roy Cooper's veto

North Carolina will place new limits on how and when neighbors of hog farms can sue the agriculture businesses next door.

The state legislature gave final approval on Wednesday to a bill that restricts nuisance lawsuits against farms and other livestock and forestry operations. The state House voted 74 to 45 in the morning to override a veto that Gov. Roy Cooper issued on Monday. The Senate voted on Tuesday to reverse the governor's action.

“Overriding this veto and correcting Gov. Cooper’s unwise decision sends the clear message to our family farmers and rural communities that they have a voice in the legislature and that this General Assembly intends to give them the respect they deserve," Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican and farmer, said in a statement. "This was never a partisan issue or about politics, but about doing what is right, and I am glad we had bipartisan support in both chambers as we stand up for our farmers."

The North Carolina Farm Act, or Senate Bill 711, sparked heated debate in the General Assembly. Rep. Billy Richardson, a Fayetteville Democrat and attorney, and Rep. John Blust, a Guilford County Republican and attorney, gave impassioned speeches, urging their fellow lawmakers not to put any more limits on the hog farm neighbors. They said the curbs went against bedrock principles on which this country was built.

When Cooper vetoed the bill he said "while agriculture is vital to North Carolina’s economy," so are “property rights” that “are vital to people’s homes and other businesses.”

“North Carolina’s nuisance laws can help allow generations of families to enjoy their homes and land without fear for their health and safety,” the Democratic governor said in his statement. “Those same laws stopped the Tennessee Valley Authority from pumping air pollution into our mountains. Our laws must balance the needs of businesses versus property rights. Giving one industry special treatment at the expense of its neighbors is unfair.”

Lawmakers pushing for the curbs on nuisance lawsuits were upset by a jury’s decision in federal court in April to award $50 million to 10 neighbors of a hog farm operated by Murphy-Brown and Smithfield Foods.

That verdict was the first in a series of nuisance suits brought against the pork producer.

North Carolina law already limited how much hog farm neighbors can get in damages if victorious at trial. A little more than a week after that landmark verdict in April, the federal judge who presided over the trial reduced the damage sentence from more than $50 million to $3.25 million to comply with a 1995 state law.

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But Jackson and other bill sponsors argued that future verdicts such as the one in the case brought by neighbors of the Duplin County hog farm could wreak havoc on the pork industry in a state that has 9 million hogs on nearly 2,300 hog farm operations.

The lawsuits filed by some 500 residents were borne out of a legal argument that a team of lawyers began crafting in 2014. They focused on the pork industry giant's continued use of "anaerobic lagoons" in which hog waste is stored behind livestock pens, then liquefied and sprayed onto nearby fields.

The neighbors have complained about a heavy stench, swarms of flies and noisy trucks that they contend make it difficult for them to enjoy the use of their property.

Small farms? Industrial complexes?

Attorneys for the neighbors contend that what once were small family farms have been expanded into industrialized agricultural facilities that have not adapted to more modern waste disposal methods.

Advocates for pork producers describe them as small family farms that will be run out of business if nuisance lawsuits become a trend.

Advocates for the proposal and critics rallied in Raleigh on Monday before the Democratic governor's veto.

Hilton Monroe of Rose Hill was among the farmers outside the Legislative Building.

"I'm here because I'm a hog producer myself and I hate to see pork prices go up higher in the store by people trying to get a fistful of dollars," Monroe said. "We need to remain the same and do what the state asked us to do as hog farmers."

The farmers, though, were not the target of the nuisance suits.

The neighbors went after Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, which describes itself as a "$15 billion global food company and the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer.” It is owned by WH Group, which has headquarters in Hong Kong and generated $22 billion in revenues last year.

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Under the new law, a nuisance lawsuit can't be filed unless it's done within a year of the establishment of the agriculture or forestry operation on which the complaint is focused or within a year of "fundamental change." "Fundamental change" does not include changes in ownership, technology, product or size of the operation.

The law further limits when punitive damages can be awarded. Unless a farm operator has a criminal conviction or has received a regulatory notice of violation that state farm laws were broken, such damages won't be allowed.

“The NC Farm Act is unjust and unnecessary, and it places the financial priorities of a global polluter over community members impacted by the pests, odors and other hazards of industrial agriculture practices," Jamie Cole, policy advocate at the NC Conservation Network, said after the lawmakers overturned the veto. "It’s difficult to believe that many of the lawmakers who voted for an override of Gov. Cooper’s veto are not aware of the negative impacts this law will have."

The North Carolina Pork Council applauded the bill in a statement of support posted last week on its website, and Lenoir and Robeson counties passed supportive resolutions. In its statement, the pork council notes other actions North Carolina lawmakers have taken since 1979.

"Recognizing that nuisance lawsuits represented a serious threat to our farms, and our economy, the legislature clarified when a farm could be considered a nuisance," the statement says. "The legislature has further refined the law four times in an attempt to keep up with our changing, growing State."

"As North Carolina continues to grow, such protections for farmers become even more important," the statement adds. "...The 2018 Farm Act offers important legal protections for responsible farmers."

David Kelly, senior manager of North Carolina political affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, criticized the law as one that undermines progress. He said the organization had been "working alongside farmers, agriculture groups and agribusinesses in North Carolina toward solutions that advance a strong agricultural economy and protect natural resources and public health."

“The ‘Farm Act’ takes North Carolina backwards," Kelly said. "It strips families of the ability to defend their rights to clean air, clean water and a healthy place to live and work."

North Carolina lawmakers also had enough votes on Wednesday to overturn another Cooper veto.

The legislators reinstated an early-voting measure that eliminates in-person voting on one of the most popular days for African-American voters — the Saturday before the elections.

When Cooper vetoed the bill, he said: "Previous attempts like this by the legislature to discriminate and manipulate the voting process have been struck down by the courts. True democracy should make it easier for people to vote, not harder."

Staff writer Charlotte Harris contributed to this report.