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Local firm representing plaintiffs in federal hog farm case

By Andie Foley
andie.foley@salisburypost.com

A federal court trial began in Raleigh Tuesday with plaintiffs represented by Salisbury’s own Wallace and Graham.

The trial involves a lawsuit filed by residents of Bladen County, brought against defendant Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of  Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.

Plaintiffs live next to Kinlaw Farms, which raises nearly 15,000 hogs owned by Murphy-Brown each year. They are seeking punitive damages as practices on the neighboring farm have hindered their ability to use and enjoy their properties.

According to the plaintiffs’ complaint, personal enjoyment of their property has been impaired by “recurring foul and offensive odors; hog manure and urine; flies or other insects; buzzards or other scavenger animals; vectors of disease; trucks that cause noise and lights at night and foul smells; dead hogs; and other sources of nuisance.”

Tuesday’s trial is the first in 26 related, pending lawsuits involving more than 500 North Carolina residents. All neighbor similar farming operations: indoor and high-capacity buildings called ‘Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.”

According to the complaint filed by Bladen County residents, hogs produce five times more waste than humans do. This, in conjunction with thousands of animals in comparatively small spaces, leads to a real, smelly problem.

Wastes are gathered into pools called ‘lagoons,’ and then sprayed onto neighboring fields as fertilizer.

In the Bladen case, residents say the wind-driven spray coats the sides of their homes, and the odor lingers on their clothes.

Essentially, hog farm neighbors are trapped indoors by the stench. They allege that they have to keep windows closed on bad days, they cannot hang laundry outdoors, that their kids get teased in school because of the lingering stench.

For North Carolina, the nation’s No. 2 provider of pork, the lawsuit could bring about big changes in profits. Hog farms generated $21 billion nationwide in 2015. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, North Carolina claimed $2.3 billion of that.

Would that number be so if North Carolina facilities followed practices listed on the WH Group website, the China-based top-tier of the Smithfield and Murphy-Brown operation?

The website says that wastes in Chinese hog farms are used not only as fertilizer, but are used to create biogas for electricity and heating.

North Carolina has statutes that strongly favor corporate-owned farms. Just last year, the General Assembly passed a law that limits damages in future lawsuits.

Now, courts cannot award affected neighbors of farm or forestry operations more than the actual market value of their properties.

The trial, which could last anywhere from four to five weeks, continues Monday. It will be one to watch according U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt, presiding over the case.

Britt has discussed sequestering the 12-member jury, which would be a first in his 36 years as a district court judge.

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