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The party whose leader promised to drain the swamp is now in the business of protecting cesspools.
The N.C. Senate’s Agriculture Committee has approved a bill that would protect the cheap way of handling hog waste: pooling it up in storage lagoons and then spraying it on fields, where it can waft on gentle breezes into neighboring properties.
The legislation would block lawsuits by decreeing that farm and forestry operations using practices common to their industry can’t be a legal nuisance.
So hog waste — we can think of a less-polite term for that — repeatedly sprayed onto the side of a house wouldn’t be considered a nuisance. Neither would strong odors that constantly hang over the houses of parents with small children, or waste that rolls into streams and rivers.
Ironically, the bill wouldn’t protect hog-farm operators who might seek ways of handling waste that don’t smell as bad or is better contained.
By shielding the same old practices, the bill sends a message: “If you try to innovate, if you try something new and maybe it fails, you’re not protected in the same way that it would have been if you just decided to stay with the sorry methods you’ve been using,” said Michelle Nowlin, an environmental attorney at Duke University.
Smithfield, whose giant hog-slaughtering plant in Bladen County buys from hog farms throughout the region and whose contracts dictate how farmers raise the livestock, hasn’t changed how it deals with hog waste since the 1980s and 1990s. Thousands of hogs are housed together on these farms. Their waste is sent into pits, where bacteria break it down. It’s then sprayed onto agricultural fields. The mist of you-know-what often drifts beyond the farmers’ property boundaries.
In April, a jury awarded a $51 million verdict to neighbors of a hog farm with 4,700 pigs. The verdict was cut to $3 million because North Carolina limits punitive damages for corporate misdeeds, according to The Associated Press. In a more recent trial, a couple is suing after a neighboring grower expanded his hog operations after they bought their home near Beulaville in 1989. There could be as many as 10 lawsuits filed by the same lawyers.
Smithfield Foods CEO Ken Sullivan said the suits could prompt the company to reconsider its presence in North Carolina, the nation’s No. 2 hog-producing state. Perhaps that threat struck fear into the hearts of our lawmakers.
There’s no doubt hog-farming is an economic mainstay of eastern North Carolina. But tobacco was once king in the region. It’s still grown here, but it’s not the only game in town anymore.
Smithfield Foods hog production president Gregg Schmidt has urged swine farmers to talk to neighbors and see if they have any complaints.
“If they do, make every effort to fix the problem. The best way to avoid being sued is to be proactive and be a good neighbor,” Schmidt said in the letter Smithfield gave The Associated Press on May 30.
We’d like to see that happen.
Michael Kaeske, a Texas-based lawyer, says that in Missouri, Smithfield has implemented costlier technology that limits odors. It hasn’t done so in North Carolina because the state hasn’t forced it to.
Now our GOP-dominated legislature is considering a bill that would protect the smellier methods and discourage farmers from adopting cleaner technology.
This is the same crowd who restructured a highly successful film incentives program into a grant system that can’t give all its money away.
We wonder how voters who support these politicians would feel if they lived beside a hog farm.
It’s time for our lawmakers to start standing up for the little guy instead of reflexively protecting big business.
It’s time to drain the cesspool.