Those of us who read the Delaware County Daily Times recognize and accept that they publish quite a few articles from the Associated Press. I sometimes wonder how the editors decide which AP stories to run of the many they have to choose from. Regardless, I usually read them all.
There was one today that commanded an entire page so I figured it must be important – ‘MONETARY DAMAGES – Court upholds hog verdict; Smithfield announces settlement.’ I figured I’d learn something new and as I got to reading through it, something about the article didn’t pass my smell test. This story is of a court case brought on by neighbors complaining about pig feces. Although there was no mention of race in the article, I had a sneaking suspicion black people were involved somehow.
After going down the rabbit hole of research, I couldn’t believe the Associate Press would not have one mention in that article that this is an environmental racism case brought on by low-income communities of color in North Carolina. It almost seems like racist reporting for them not to even mention race in the article since race is clearly what this case is all about.
Since I took the time to travel down the rabbit hole, allow me to summarize what I found so you can learn along with me the basis for this court case. I’ll highlight the classic elements of environmental racism so you can recognize it when you see it in the future – even if they don’t mention it in a newspaper article.
If I were to give this summary a headline it would be ‘Pick your Poison in Poverty Pollution.’ The poison in this story is pig waste (agriculture) but you could substitute any number of industries that pollute communities of color. It’s the classic case of corporations valuing money over people.
This story takes place in North Carolina where they say the state’s industrial hog operations disproportionately affect African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. They found that roughly 160,000 North Carolinians live within a half-mile of a pig or poultry farm; in Duplin County, nearly 12,500 people, more than 20% of its residents, live within that range. If you extend the radius to three miles, as many as 960,000 North Carolinians fall into that category. That’s nearly 10% of the state’s population and most of them are people of color.
More than 500 North Carolina residents, mostly poor and African American, filed 26 federal lawsuits against Murphy-Brown, alleging its behavior adversely affects their health and quality of life. The lawsuits argue that Murphy-Brown’s parent company, Smithfield, has the financial resources to manage the pigs’ waste in a way that could minimize the odor and nuisance to nearby property owners. By the way, there are more than 80,000 Murphy-Brown-owned hogs at seven different farms, according to a lawsuit filed in 2014.
What’s wrong with living next to pig waste?
Pig farming took on a new look in North Carolina starting in the early 1980s. What used to be a bunch of family operated farms, many were consolidated into one large corporation where the number of overall pig farms in the state fell from more than 11,000 in 1982 to 2,217 in 2012.
These new farms lump thousands of pigs inside of buildings (confinement houses) on slanted floors where their waste gets collected in ponds. These ponds are massive open-air cesspool storing the pigs’ waste – a stagnant pool containing their feces, urine, blood and other bodily fluids – often referred to as a “lagoon”, of which there are about 3,300 lagoons across the state, many of them right next to black homeowners. When the cesspool reaches its capacity, its contents are liquefied and sprayed into a field as close as 200 feet away from homes via a large, sprinkler-like apparatus.
Neighbors say…”That scent is so bad. You can’t go outside. You can’t go outside and cook anything because the flies and mosquitoes take over.” The liquefied waste mist drifts on to their property, and “dead boxes” filled with rotting hogs sit near one family’s cemetery, attracting buzzards, gnats and swarms of large black flies. They can’t hang up their clothes outside to dry and children are mocked at school for smelling like hog waste.
Scientists have taken dust samples from the air which were found to contain tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of hog feces DNA particles, demonstrating exposure to hog feces bioaerosols for clients who breathe in the air at their homes. Considering the facts, it is far more likely than not that hog feces also gets inside clients’ homes where they live and where they eat. Air pollutants from the routine operation of confinement houses, cesspools, and waste sprayers affect nearby neighborhoods where they cause disruption of activities of daily living, stress, anxiety, mucous membrane irritation, respiratory conditions, reduced lung function, and acute blood pressure elevation.
History of the pig farms
Most of the move to corporate pig farming was started by a guy named Wendell Murphy, a powerful Democratic North Carolina state legislator who grew to become the nation’s top hog producer during his tenure in the general assembly, from 1982–93. While in office, he backed legislation to provide poultry and hog farmers with tax breaks and exemptions from environmental regulation, helping “pass laws worth millions of dollars to his company and his industry.”
The Law Suits
One of the first to sue is Elsie Herring. Herring says her grandfather purchased the property she lives on in the 1880s from his aunt, who was white and his slave mistress. It’s adjacent to a farm that contracts with Murphy-Brown to raise 1,180 of his pigs. The lawsuit contends that the hog facility began spraying liquefied waste in the mid-90s and planted trees between their properties to act as a buffer, which proved ineffective. The spraying happened “all day, every day.” The stench became so unbearable that Herring eventually contacted the Duplin County sheriff’s office, the Duplin County department of health, and the NC department of environmental and natural resources for help – all to no avail.
In 2014 more than 500 North Carolinians, most of them African American, blitzed Murphy-Brown with more than two dozen federal lawsuits. Hog farm neighbors often complain that the odor, while intermittent, is so overpowering that they cannot tend their gardens, hang their laundry, or invite relatives over for cookouts. Industrial farms, they say, also bring flies, buzzards, and intense truck traffic day and night.
Smithfield called the complaints exaggerated and the alternatives too costly and have called the litigation an “almost existential threat” to North Carolina farmers.
The suits were initially filed in Wake County superior court in 2013 by two out-of-state firms, whose lawyers recruited clients in North Carolina without a state license and signed hundreds of clients to contracts requiring them to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for work performed on their behalf. They were challenged and booted off the case leaving a bunch of black families losing thousands of dollars paid to them. The families finally got proper counsel.
The pig industry consistency dismisses any claims and allege North Carolina’s hog farmers are under a coordinated attack by predatory lawyers, anti-farm activists and their allies, said Smithfield Foods. They say, “The lawsuits are about one thing and one thing only: a money grab.” Smithfield points to the fact that between 2012 and 2016, the DEQ only received 25 odor complaints, and of those, none resulted in fines or notices of violations.
Back in 1991, the “Murphy Amendment” exempted poultry and animal operations from stricter regulations on air and water pollution, and a 1991 bill that barred counties from imposing zoning restrictions on hog farms. A state law passed in 2014 kept complaints from the public against farm operations confidential. That made it harder to track whether regulators were taking those complaints seriously. In 2017 lawmakers voted to limit future nuisance damages with House Bill 467 that caps the amount of money that property owners living near “agriculture and forestry operations”, including hog farms, could collect in nuisance lawsuits leaving the industry on the hook only for the diminished sale or rental value of a plaintiff’s home. In effect, they stripped hog farm neighbors of the right to sue for personal suffering. People could only collect damages equal to the reduction in their property’s fair market value – which critics argue is already low thanks to the presence of the nearby farms.
Smithfield Foods was hit with a knockout verdict: Not only was Smithfield responsible for its neighbors’ suffering, but it had also acted wantonly enough to warrant punitive damages. The jury awarded the 10 plaintiffs $50.75 million combined, though the award was reduced to $3.25 million because of a state cap on punitive damages. It was the first of five trials in 2018 and 2019—a bellwether case for the other suits. Smithfield lost all five, even the two for which it chose the plaintiffs. It was assessed wildly different damage awards, from $102,400 to $473.5 million. The latter was scaled back to $94 million because of the cap.
Here’s the new news
A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld a 2018 jury verdict that led to awarding monetary damages to neighbors of a North Carolina industrial hog operation for smells and noise they said made living nearby unbearable.
The corporations still allege the case is a “coordinated effort by plaintiffs’ attorneys and their allies aimed at dismantling our safe, reliable and modern system of food production.” They contend in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s better to focus on producing good food instead of returning to “ongoing and distracting litigation.”
“This is environmental racism,” says Ms. Herring. “This is my family land. And I’m sure race played a part when they decided they wanted to develop this area. We’ve been asked many times, ‘Why don’t you just move?’ Move and go where? I don’t want to move. I never knew my grandfather, but I know he walked on this ground. And his family.” She pauses and looks at her house. “It’s my land.”
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