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Something’s going on with the court battles between this state’s industrial-scale hog farms and their neighbors. We’re hoping it’s the kind of breakthrough solution we’ve been urging since long before the legal actions began.
U.S. District Judge Earl Britt signed a court order delaying a fourth nuisance suit against hog farms until November. The trial was slated to begin this week. So far, the pork industry is 0-for-3 in cases that have gone to trial.
The suits by the neighbors of the big hog farms have pointed to a host of problems that make life miserable. Most of the problems are linked to the industry’s practice of keeping massive amounts of hog waste in open-air cesspools that the industry refers to as “lagoons.” The waste is eventually sprayed on farm fields as fertilizer. The lagoons can give off a horrific stench, as can the spraying, which in turn draws clouds of insects. Farm neighbors say that during spraying, a rising breeze can cause the droplets of effluent to drift over their homes and property, making it impossible to do anything outside.
The suits were filed against pork giant Smithfield Foods, which is owned by Chinese food giant WH Group. That’s because Smithfield’s contracts with the hog farmers stipulate the conditions in which the animals will be raised, the feed they’re given and even the details of how their waste will be disposed. The lagoons and sprayfields are used because Smithfield requires it.
The open-air pits and spray disposal of hog waste were banned in North Carolina at new livestock operations in 1997. But existing operations were “grandfathered,” and they expanded as the industry grew. North Carolina is the second-largest pork producer in the country, trailing only Iowa. Sampson and Duplin counties are home to more hogs than any other counties in the country. The large growing operations can generate more solid and liquid waste than a small city — without benefit of modern sewage treatment.
The delay of the upcoming trial — one of 23 yet to come — may be linked to negotiations for a settlement.
“The parties have also agreed to pursue potential options for alternative resolution of future trials,” the lawyers said in a joint motion. Neither side could comment further, since the courts have imposed a strict gag order on both sides in the dispute.
Smithfield has told growers it’s appealing the three verdicts that went against the company, but we’re hoping the company has already seen the futility of its case — juries aren’t likely to sympathize with a company that has rejected modern waste-disposal techniques and instead imposes an onerous burden on its neighbors.
Smithfield in the past has made not-so-veiled threats that it might pull up stakes and leave North Carolina. But the company has just invested more than $100 million in its Bladen County processing facility, the largest hog slaughterhouse in the world.
It would make far more sense if the company would do what it has already done in other states— cover the lagoons and adopt new waste-disposal techniques. Some of the nation’s top experts in agricultural waste disposal work just up the road, at N.C. State University, and they’ve already done the research on what works and what’s cost-effective.
The company and state lawmakers have an opportunity here to demonstrate to the world that factory-scale hog farms can be good neighbors. We hope they’ll do it.