A prime example of phony victimization could be found Tuesday at a rally in Duplin County. That’s where backers of the hog industry turned out small farmers and residents to protest nuisance lawsuits against industrial hog farms.
Gathering folks in jeans with signs reading “I’m a fan of NC family farms” is part of an effort by Republican lawmakers and officials to cast the nuisance suits as an attack on small farmers. But the lawsuits aren’t aimed at family farmers growing soybeans, corn and sweet potatoes. They’re aimed at a Chinese-owned multinational corporation, Smithfield Foods, which is content to treat swaths of eastern North Carolina as cesspools until it’s forced to do otherwise.
Two federal trials have resulted in $75 million in awards to hundreds of neighbors of Smithfield hog operations. The neighbors, often African-American and lower income, have had to cope with reeking hog waste ponds, increased flies, vermin and sprayed liquid waste that sometimes splatters the sides of their homes. But the punitive damages those juries have imposed on the hog industry — and the pressure to change those costs are intended to create — have been sharply reduced by state-imposed caps.
Nonetheless, a third federal trial is underway in Raleigh, where jurors are likely to again be repulsed by what they learn about the conditions endured by the neighbors of massive hog farm operations that generate the waste of a small city, but provide little sewage treatment beyond spraying the stuff on fields.
Republican state lawmakers scrambled last session to protect the industry from more lawsuits by limiting who could sue to residents within a half-mile of a farm whose residency preceded the opening of the farm. It also barred the award of punitive damages in most cases. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the restrictions but his veto was overridden.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican who plans to run for governor in 2020, was at the Duplin rally and in high dudgeon over the verdicts against an industry that is despoiling the air and the quality of life for many North Carolinians.
Forest put on his populist hat to talk to the farmers’ rally about the evils of “big money.”
“This is one of those times in the history of North Carolina farmers where you have to say enough is enough,” Forest said. “When we have big-money, out-of-state trial lawyers ginning up plaintiffs around your farms and around your communities so that they can come in and sue you, so they put you out of business and they make millions of dollars doing it, that’s not right. That’s not fair, and that’s not something we should tolerate in North Carolina.”
Forest is right about one thing. It is one of those times in the history of North Carolina when people have to say enough is enough. The degradation of eastern North Carolina by industrialized hog farming has been going for decades. The industry refuses to invest in technology that could greatly reduce the nasty smell and pollution. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are are creating an unseemly order of their own by lining up to protect the industry from being held accountable in the courts.
If the hog industry wants to stop nuisance lawsuits it should stop being a nuisance. Until then, voters should toss out the industry’s protectors in the legislature and continue to bring on those “big-money, out-of-state lawyers.”
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or firstname.lastname@example.org