N.C. hog industry gets a whiff of odor's cost – $50 million. Will it clean up now?

The lagoon at a hog farm in Magnolia in 2017 holds the feces and urine from growing barns. The effluent is used as a fertilizer and is  sprayed on a rotation of crops of wheat, corn and soybeans on the farm.
The lagoon at a hog farm in Magnolia in 2017 holds the feces and urine from growing barns. The effluent is used as a fertilizer and is sprayed on a rotation of crops of wheat, corn and soybeans on the farm.

In 1996 The News & Observer won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service by exposing how state lawmakers coddled the hog farm industry even as hog waste degraded the environment and assaulted neighbors with an unremitting stench.

Twenty-two years later some progress has been made, but massive hog farms continue to store fetid manure in open-air lagoons and disperse the liquid waste by spraying it on fields. And they still enjoy the help of legislators who would rather protect a powerful industry than the people they represent.

But now 10 neighbors of a 15,000-hog farm in Eastern North Carolina have successfully raised a stink of their own. They sued in federal court over the sickening odors emanating from the farm operated for Murphy-Brown/Smithfield Foods. The jurors took less than two days to decide that the olfactory torture was worth $50 million in damages.

Michelle Nowlin is a law professor and supervising attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke Law and the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. She's been following the hog industry pollution since 1995 when she led the Southern Environmental Law Center's project to develop regulations for hog waste disposal. She said of the April 26 verdict:

"This is a significant victory for the community members who live next to these factory feedlots. They have suffered indescribable insults, not just from the immediate impacts of the feedlots themselves, but also from decades of government failure to come to their aid. Litigation was their last chance for justice, and this verdict and award will help them move forward.”

The award is large, but so is the hog industry, with nearly 10 million hogs being raised in North Carolina annually. And legislators last year passed a law limiting the rights of neighbors to file new nuisance suits and capping the amounts that can be awarded in those suits.

Still, this verdict signals a considerable threat to the industry's continuing to do business as usual. More than 20 lawsuits filed against Murphy-Brown on behalf of more than 500 residents of Eastern North Carolina are awaiting legal resolution and are not covered by the recently imposed limits. If those complaints can also wrinkle the noses of jurors, the hog industry may finally get tired of paying up and start cleaning up. That was the case in Missouri, where the state attorney general sued large scale hog farms on behalf of neighbors and forced the farms to adopt technology that reduces odors and threats to water quality.

Since the news reports of the 1990s, some progress has been made in North Carolina. There is a moratorium on new, industrial scale hog farms, the state environmental regulators keep closer track of the operations and lagoons built since the mid-90s are now lined to prevent seepage. In Hurricane Matthew, the storage pits held up well.

The N.C. Pork Council said the verdict may have been different had jurors visited the Murphy-Brown farm and saw the effects of changes. "Our industry has invested significantly in new technologies and improvements, and more and better management practices," the council said.

Nonetheless, storing hog waste in open pits is unacceptable given the technology available in the 21st century to trap the waste's odor and the greenhouse gases it generates. But the hog industry — which enjoys federal subsides on soy and corn and shows healthy profits — says the new options are too expensive.

North Carolina can't afford to endure the smell and environmental hazards of a hog industry operating in the raw. Hog farmers elsewhere have met the cost of better waste processing. It can be done here.

“Lagoons and sprayfields are primitive ways to manage any kind of waste, and when you’re talking about hundreds of millions of gallons of raw manure, it’s insane," Nowlin said. "Other countries – including Germany and China – require modern methods of waste management, disposal and treatment, and we should, too. The technology is available, and the industry can afford it.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com.