By Catherine Clabby and Rose Hoban
People on opposing sides of the increasingly hostile dispute over hog farm lawsuits urged Gov. Roy Cooper to choose sides in Raleigh on Monday.
Supporters and opponents each came to the state capital to sound off on the recently passed 2018 state farm bill, a measure that would further curtail neighbors’ ability to sue over farm nuisances such as odors and other environmental stressors that some say taint the places where they live.
Despite opposition that included members of their own party, Republican legislators introduced and won passage of the nuisance language in the farm bill earlier this month. They said it was required to fend off more lawsuits such as the 26 cases filed against Murphy-Brown LLC, the hog-farming division of Smithfield Foods. The company lost the first of the suits in federal court in April.
Opponents of the bill on both sides of the aisle argued that it is possible to support agriculture without eroding property rights, one of the oldest and most fundamental rights protected by law.
It was a day of contrasts.
“Smelled like ammonia”
The action started with a noontime press conference in the legislature building, sparsely attended because most of the capitol press corps was sitting in a vital House committee meeting in the next room. A handful of Eastern North Carolina residents, with several dozen supporters listening, described how difficult it is to live near large hog operations.
“When I get up in the morning time, the smell is so bad that you don’t know what to do about it. There’s nothing I can do about it,” said Pamela McMillon, who lives a quarter mile from hog houses in the Duplin County town of Wallace on land she inherited from her parents.
“Last Friday, the temperature and humidity was so high and the people who had the hog house, they was spraying,” McMillon said. “With the temperature, and him spraying, the air smelled like ammonia that burned your eyes.”
The recently passed farm bill says only people living within half a mile of a farm can file such lawsuits. And they must act within a year of a farming operation starting or undergoing a “fundamental” change. Plaintiffs would be prohibited from obtaining punitive damages in court unless a farm was implicated in criminal convictions or government enforcement actions.
Such language would make it nearly impossible for neighbors near large livestock farms to seek redress for such nuisances, said Jessie Jamon of Kenansville. “This bill would undermine the actual law that’s on the books that say we have the right to clean air and clean water,” he said.
The some 2,000 large hog farms that use open lagoons and field spraying systems to manage animal waste in this state were established before 2007, when environmental concerns prompted state lawmakers to impose a moratorium on operations dependent on that technology.
“Pristinely manicured farm”
Just a few hours later Monday, Candice Morgan stood on Bicentennial Mall near the state Agriculture Building to address hundreds of farmers and their families who came to town to voice their support for the farm bill.
Morgan said she and other young farmers and ranchers who were touring the eastern part of the state made an impromptu visit to Joey Carter’s hog farm in Duplin County earlier this month. The second nuisance court case against Smithfield alleges Carter’s farm poses problems as well.
“As we stood on his pristinely manicured farm, I breathed in the injustice that is attacking him in the courtroom,” Morgan told the crowd standing across the street from the legislative building. “I saw green grassy pasture, impeccably clean hog houses with very little odor and a comparable number of flies to what you might find at any one of your houses.”
The hundreds of people in the gathered crowd cheered, many waving printed signs reading, “I’m a fan of NC Farm Families.”
As Morgan spoke, state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler sat behind her on a temporary stage that also included a band and a smattering of lawmakers that included House sponsor Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Warsaw) and Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Autryville), who Dixon called the “architect of the farm acts.”
“North Carolina’s agriculture and agribusiness industry has an over $87 billion economic impact to the economy and employs a fifth of the workforce or 730,000 people. Agriculture is the economic driver of rural North Carolina,” said a press release that the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued about the rally late last week.
Part of the complaint farmers brought to Raleigh about the lawsuits playing out across town has to do with what evidence is being allowed into the courtroom in these cases. Morgan and her husband Jacob made the same complaint during an interview after her speech.
As reported in NC Health News, Smithfield’s attorneys are critical of evidence from a paid plaintiff’s expert that finds particles of hog feces escape from Joey Carter’s farm and could explain the odors neighbors complain about. The pork company lawyers want Senior District Court Judge Earl Britt to let jurors hear results from an odor study Smithfield paid for that detected no nuisance odors on Carter’s farm.
Cooper makes his choice
In the end, Cooper vetoed the bill, sending it back to the General Assembly at 9:13 pm Monday, writing in a statement: “While agriculture is vital to North Carolina’s economy, so property rights are vital to people’s homes and other businesses.”
It’s unclear whether there will be enough votes in the legislature to resist Cooper’s veto; the original bill passed 67-47 in the House, a few votes shy of the 72 votes required for a veto override.
As the fight for override mounts, some former legislators stand prepared to continue pushing back. Rick Glazier, a Democrat who left the body to become head of the left-leaning NC Justice Center, said the Farm Act might not pass constitutional muster and predicted lawsuits filed against the bill if it becomes law.
Glazier’s been working against the bill alongside his old colleague, former representative Paul Stam, a Republican who spent several days at the legislature two weeks ago speaking against the bill.
The old rivals have found a common argument with the governor, who concluded his veto message saying: “Our laws must balance the needs of businesses versus property rights. Giving one industry special treatment at the expense of its neighbors is unfair.”