NC hog farm neighbors seek court help to stop the stink

Two dozen lawsuits now before a federal court challenge the personal cost of North Carolina’s $2.5 billion hog industry: living with its stink.

More than 500 plaintiffs from hog country, centered southeast of Raleigh, say the sickening stench regularly forces them indoors. Mists of wastewater sprayed on nearby fields drift across property lines, they say. Flies swarm. Roadside “dead boxes” bulge with expired swine.

Those are problems that state legislation and a landmark settlement with the industry were supposed to have solved nearly 20 years ago, when industrial hog farms had spread across Eastern North Carolina.

Instead, the state reached a plateau that’s endured since 1997. Legislators passed tough standards, including odor controls, that stopped new farms from being built. But existing ones, which each may hold thousands of animals, continue to operate.

About 2,100 farms produce 10 million hogs a year, matching North Carolina’s human population and making it the second-biggest hog state after Iowa.

Swine produce copious amounts of manure – 15 pounds a day for a 250-pound hog. Farms flush waste from barns where the animals are raised into open pits, called lagoons, and then spray the nutrient-rich water as crop fertilizer.

And that makes life miserable for neighbors, many of them say.

Hog farms sit on three sides of Melvin Dixon’s modest home in Duplin County, the state’s leading hog producer. Dixon, a 59-year-old security guard, has chronic bronchitis that he says is made worse by life in his rural community.

Two to three days a week, he said, the farms’ stench drives him indoors to sit under an air conditioner. Some days, he has to leave home in search of clear air in nearby Kenansville.

“You never know when it’s going to come in. You can be breathing freely, and an hour later you have to go inside,” he said. “It’s very upsetting when you can’t come out of your own house, on your own property, to tidy up your yard or just enjoy a nice day.”

Dixon said he’s complained to county officials and traveled with other Duplin residents to lobby legislators in Raleigh.

“It’s like all the big farms have everyone in their pocket,” he said. “They say something’s going to be done, but years pass and nothing gets better.”

The federal lawsuits, filed by a Salisbury law firm, take aim at the biggest player in North Carolina’s hog industry – Murphy-Brown LLC, the hog-growing subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer. Murphy-Brown owns the hogs at up to two-thirds of North Carolina’s farms, the lawsuits say, under contracts with local growers.

The lawsuits claim the farms are nuisances the company failed to rectify despite mounting scientific evidence that they harm neighbors. The lawsuits ask for jury trials, compensatory and punitive damages and injunctive relief.

In affidavits, UNC epidemiologist Steven Wing and Dr. James Merchant, a public health professor at of the University of Iowa, recount dozens of studies on the struggles of people who live near farms: burning eyes, breathing problems, headaches, anxiety, blood pressure spikes.

Hog farms release gases and particles including hydrogen sulfide, known for its rotten-egg odor, and the irritating gas ammonia, Wing wrote.

“These communities are disproportionately composed of low-income people of color who have fewer protections from environmental hazards, less ability to leave their homes during high exposure periods and less access to medical and clinical services, than residents of higher-income communities,” increasing their vulnerability to the emissions, he wrote.

Record profits and the $4.7 billion acquisition last year of Smithfield Foods by a Chinese company give Murphy-Brown ample ability to improve conditions, the lawsuits say. Wallace & Graham, the Salisbury law firm that filed the litigation, would not comment.

Murphy-Brown also refused to talk in detail about the lawsuits, which moved from state court to U.S. District Court in Raleigh. “We think they’re about money,” said Don Butler, vice president for government relations and public affairs.

Motion to dismiss

In a motion to dismiss the lead case, which was filed on behalf of Sampson County residents, Murphy-Brown’s lawyers call it a “diatribe against the hog industry in general and its perceived impact on society and the environment.”

“Plaintiffs entirely ignore the multitude of benefits stemming from the hog industry, which supports North Carolina’s economy and its citizens,” it adds. The North Carolina Pork Council says the industry employs 46,000 people in the state.

Lawsuits claiming livestock as nuisances go back centuries. Former U.S. Sen. Robert Morgan sued North Carolina hog farms as nuisances in the mid-1990s but lost.

Results have been mixed in recent years. After a series of jury awards against swine companies, including one for $11 million, Missouri limited how much neighbors can win in nuisance lawsuits. In July, an Indiana judge ruled for hog growers in four cases.

Some hog farm neighbors in North Carolina are using a different legal tactic.

In September, three advocacy groups filed a federal complaint against the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Their petition to the Environmental Protection Agency says lax regulation of hog farms violates the civil rights of the poor and minority communities near them.

The EPA has not yet responded to the petition.

“The people in these communities have suffered long and hard, and it’s time for a change,” said Devon Hall, an activist in Duplin County, where hogs outnumber people 30 to 1. “We’re not advocating putting anybody out of business, but if they can begin – begin – to clean up these farms, then that’s what we want.”

Public outcry

Fast growth, little regulation and high-profile waste spills made hog farms the state’s environmental story of the 1990s.

Legislators responded to public outrage in the mid-1990s by setting minimum distances between farms and nearby homes, property lines and private wells. In 1997, they enacted a temporary moratorium on new and expanded farms, making it permanent in 2007. Growers had to hire certified waste-management specialists and file odor-management plans.

“We have the most robust regulatory program for swine in the country,” said Christine Lawson, the state Division of Water Resources official who oversees the farms. “When I go to (industry) meetings and tell them we inspect every swine farm every year, their mouths fall open because the EPA requires only every five years.”

DENR has cited swine farms for a falling number of violations, and lesser offenses called notices of deficiency, in the past three years. Violations and deficiencies dropped from 240 in fiscal year 2011 to 102 in 2014. Fines were levied in 26 cases in fiscal year 2011 but only three times in 2014.

Butler, the Murphy-Brown official, co-owns a swine farm in Bladen County. In 22 years, he said, no neighbor has ever complained about it.

He attributes that to good management, such as avoiding spilled feed that attracts rodents, paying close attention to lagoon levels and not spraying on windy days or on saturated fields. He says most odor problems come from the large exhaust fans that ventilate barns.

“We believe the state regulations are a good thing,” Butler said. “We don’t fear inspections on our farms. In fact, we welcome them, and they have had the effect of getting rid of some of the bad managers.”

Innovation stalled

In 2000, then-Attorney General Mike Easley and Smithfield Foods struck a groundbreaking deal. Smithfield would pay for research into alternatives to lagoons and sprayfields, with the goal of phasing them out. Once economically viable technology was found, Smithfield pledged to install it on company-owned farms.

That day never came. After six years and $17 million spent on research from Smithfield and a second company, scientists had found five technologies suited to new farms, which weren’t being built. But all cost too much – up to five times as much as lagoon systems – to be feasible on existing farms.

Pork processors have little motivation to press for change, said Duke University law professor Ryke Longest, who negotiated the Smithfield Agreement while on Easley’s staff.

That’s because under typical contracts, companies like Murphy-Brown companies leave growers responsible for their manure. The growers aren’t likely to be able to afford new technology that can cost up to $1 million per farm.

“That’s I think the biggest obstacle – not just the economics, it’s the contract structure,” Longest said.

Mike Williams, a North Carolina State University professor who oversaw the search for new technologies, said he had expected the state to pony up incentives to help get the new solutions off the ground. That didn’t happen.

Helping farmers profit from the methane gas that hog manure produces would have put more alternative systems in use and reduced their costs, Williams said. Methane, a greenhouse gas, could be harvested to make renewable energy or sales of carbon credits.

Waste-to-energy technology remains promising but expensive, with only 10 subsidized projects operating. North Carolina’s 2007 renewable energy mandate required that a small amount of energy be produced from swine waste by 2012, but that’s been delayed for three straight years.

The first hog farm to expand since 1997 is now under construction in Wayne County. It will capture methane, controlling odor from a covered lagoon while generating electricity from its waste.

“Do I look at them in horror that we still have (lagoons)? No,” Williams said. “But this is an area where I have lost some friends on the agriculture side, and I do not believe that we have a technology that is generationally sustainable.”

Citizen complaints

Duplin County, an hour south of Raleigh, is an expanse of bare fields in winter, small towns, and more fields. Rows of low metal barns house hogs, chickens and turkeys. The air smells slightly of ammonia.

With more than 500 swine farms, county manager Mike Aldridge said, “everybody’s pretty close to a hog farm.”

The county gets complaints about odor from time to time, Aldridge said, often from minority neighborhoods closest to the farms. Those have dwindled since stricter farm standards took effect in the 1990s, he said.

“Some farmers have maybe become a little more sensitive to the neighbors,” Aldridge said.

If an odor problem is confirmed, the state Division of Air Quality says, the offending farm is told to take steps to control it. That might include more frequently flushing manure from barns or planting wind barriers to block the smell.

But it’s impossible to learn how often that happens.

The air-quality division says it doesn’t keep a database of odor complaints, although officials say numbers have fallen in recent years. Legislators added to the mystery this year by deciding that citizen complaints about farms aren’t public record unless the state confirms a violation occurred.

Only once has the division taken enforcement action. A Bladen County farm was forced to get a state air-quality permit, typically reserved for industries, because of odor problems in 2009.

Devon Hall, a Duplin native, sees little change since he cofounded the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, or REACH, in 2002. The group works on social and economic justice, and has helped on health studies of swine farms.

Life in hog country, he says, is a struggle between powerful interests and the powerless.

Hall recalls riding his motorcycle through drifting mists of hog waste, and says locals know to give a wide berth to the smelly “dead trucks” hauling carcasses from roadside boxes. He once anonymously reported an offending farm to DENR, only to have the department give the grower his phone number.

The nose knows, he says, winter or summer, when a grower flushes his barns or turns on spray equipment or the wind shifts a certain way.

“When it stinks,” Hall said, “it stinks.”