Bill Would Protect Hog Farmers From Lawsuits; Activists and Neighbors Aren’t Pleased | News

Bill Would Protect Hog Farmers From Lawsuits; Activists and Neighbors Aren’t Pleased

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ERICA HELLERSTEIN
  • Erica Hellerstein

State Representative Jimmy Dixon, R-Wayne and Duplin, the first to speak during a packed committee hearing inside the legislature Wednesday, kicked things off with a rather strange request.

“I want to take us back a few years, to 1859, when soon-to-be President Abraham Lincoln addressed the opening day of the Wisconsin Agriculture Fair,” he said. “I will use that [speech] as a springboard in explaining this bill.”

It’s an apt metaphor for the state Republican Party these days: Why go forward when you could go 150 years back? The irony didn't go unnoticed.

“I was hoping that you would at least come to the later eighteen hundreds, when African Americans weren’t enslaved,” quipped Representative Amos Quick, D-Guilford.

Quick understood that Dixon’s reference—an obtuse, meandering way to remind the crowd that farmers produce our food, so we should support them—was all the more curious given the demographic makeup of the communities likely to suffer under the bill they were here to discuss: people of color living near the state’s industrial hog farms.

The legislation, HB 467, or the "Agriculture and Forestry Nuisance Remedies" bill, would shield the hog industry from myriad kinds of legal claims. As written, it would prevent plaintiffs from recovering damages that aren’t property value-related, including anything stemming from health, pain, or lost-income concerns.

And here's the rub: it
doesn't grandfather in active legal cases.

As The News & Observer reported:

That retroactive provision would ensnare 26 lawsuits pending in federal court, filed by 541 people against Murphy-Brown, a hog producing subsidiary of pork giant Smithfield Foods. 

That’s worrisome to environmental activists and many of the stakeholders living in the vicinity of the hog farms. They say the bill would undermine their ability to protect themselves, the environment, and their properties from the harms caused by the state’s hog farms—and, they’re quick to add, it will disproportionately affect communities of color.

“This is about race,” said Larry Baldwin of the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper organization. “This bill has got to go. It’s not about protecting the people, it’s about protecting the industry. If you pass HB 476, who are you protecting? Because it’s not a lot of people you’re seeing in this room.”

North Carolina’s industrial hog farms are notoriously toxic, storing millions of gallons of feces and urine in open-air cesspools. When those pools fill up, the hog waste sprays into the air, activists say, and can even make its way into peoples’ homes. The stenches and fumes can be so repulsive that people living near the farms will quarantine themselves inside or only step outside briefly. In short, nearby residents say, it’s a horrible and nauseating way to live.

“I live in the middle of around twenty hog farms,” Nick Woodard, who drove several hours from eastern North Carolina to attend the hearing, told the INDY. “And they smell so bad you can hardly come outside most of the time. And we just want to try to stop the pollution. The hog farms are polluting our areas and we want to try to stop them.”

Nick Woodard and Deborah Peterson both live near hog farms in eastern North Carolina. - ERICA HELLERSTEIN
  • Erica Hellerstein
  • Nick Woodard and Deborah Peterson both live near hog farms in eastern North Carolina.

Dixon, a longtime farmer, says he just wants to find the "proper remedy when there is an instance of temporary or permanent nuisance."

"We have decided to present this idea to the General Assembly, and we are not in any way trying to say that there are not nuisance situations out there," he said. "We certainly are not trying to say it will affect anything that is negligent. We abhor that which is negligent that causes hardships for neighbors or for other people."

Maybe that's true. But when you look at the list of people who have contributed to Dixon's campaigns over the years, it's hard to imagine he's not a friend of the pork industry. From 2012–16, he received $9,500 in campaign contributions from the North Carolina Pork Council, according to campaign contribution data. Beyond the obvious, however, other contributors stand out, making the proposed legislation—and Dixon's staunch support for it—all the more suspect.

Take the Maxwell family, for example. During the course of Dixon's career, the Maxwells have contributed more than $20,000 to Dixon. They own Goldsboro Milling Company, the "tenth largest swine producer in the United States," according to the company. (Goldsboro Milling is also one of the principal owners of Butterball.) But Goldsboro Milling’s affection for Dixon doesn't stop with the Maxwells. John Pike ($3,000 to Dixon) and Walter Pelletier ($9,000) also have ties to Goldsboro Milling.

In addition, people with ties to Prestage Farms have donated $37,500 to Dixon over the years. Guess what business they're in?

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In addition, donors with ties to Murphy Farms have donated another $18,000 to Dixon.

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That’s nearly $90,000 from the pork industry to Dixon.

Meanwhile, true to North Carolina legislative fashion, the hearing was held in a small room with no audio streaming; about a dozen or more people weren’t allowed in, according to people who waited outside. We recorded the public comments, so anyone who wants to take a listen can click on the video below.

As of press time, no vote has been called.

Additional reporting by Ken Fine.

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