For years, neighbors of some North Carolina hog farms have complained about the nauseating stench of hog waste that they say blankets the air around them. This week, they'll begin making that case to a jury.
In a federal court in Raleigh, the first trial in a series of groundbreaking lawsuits against Murphy-Brown LLC, the world's largest pork producer, kicked off on Monday. The outcome could have major implications for the state's multibillion-dollar pork industry and could force big changes to the way farms manage excrement.
The twenty-six lawsuits were filed in 2014 by more than five hundred plaintiffs living near industrial hog farms in eastern North Carolina. The plaintiffs argue that the farms' practice of storing hog waste in open-air cesspools and then liquefying and spraying the remains onto nearby fields has made their lives miserable. Among other things, they say that the odors and mist from the spray drift onto their property; that the hogs attract swarms of flies, buzzards, and gnats; that boxes filled with rotting dead hogs produce an especially pungent stink; and that the stench has limited their ability to go outside.
The lawsuits claim that Murphy-Brown's parent company, Smithfield Foods—which was purchased by the Chinese corporation WH Group in 2013 for an estimated $4.7 billion—has the financial resources to eliminate the odors but has "failed to do so negligently and improperly."
The first trial concerns ten plaintiffs who live near Kinlaw Farm in Bladen County, which, according to court records, contains twelve hog buildings and three open-air cesspools. The farm, which contracts with Murphy-Brown to raise the company's hogs until they are processed, is not the subject of litigation. Even so, industry advocates have argued that these lawsuits are an assault by avaricious attorneys on hardworking family famers.
"North Carolina's hog farmers are under a coordinated attack by predatory lawyers, anti-farm activists, and their allies," Smithfield Foods told the INDY last year. "The lawsuits are about one thing and one thing only: a money grab."
According to their complaint, these ten plaintiffs "have suffered episodes of noxious and sickening odor, onslaughts of flies and pests, nausea, burning and watery eyes, stress, anger, worry, and loss of property value."
Plaintiff Delois Lewis, according to the complaint, can no longer hang clothes outside to dry because they will absorb the hogs' odors. Archie Wright says he can occasionally hear the screams of hogs through the wooded area that separates his home from the farm, and he can no longer open his windows to air out his home. His girlfriend, Teresa Lloyd, "spends much less time outside now than before the Facility was constructed due to the bugs and the odor."
Although the plaintiffs take issue with the farm's sprayfield system, Murphy-Brown's attorneys said in a court filing that jurors should not hear about alternative technologies that farms outside of North Carolina use to dispose of hog waste, because that would imply that such technologies could be implemented at Kinlaw Farm.
The company's attorneys have also asked the court to exclude references to Smithfield's Chinese ownership, as well as information about Murphy-Brown's lobbying and public relations activities, including on legislation such as HB 467, a bill passed last year that limited the amount of money people suing agricultural operations could collect in nuisance lawsuits.
The trial is expected to last about six weeks. The next trial, which involves a new batch of plaintiffs, will be heard two weeks after the first trial ends. After that, trials will be held once a month until all of the cases are decided or a settlement is reached.
Which means we could be doing this for a while.