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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hog Waste

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If you ate bacon this morning, chances are it came from a pig who was raised on a giant factory farm. Such farms can put out as much waste as a small city, but pig farms usually don't have sewage systems. Instead it gets dumped into open air waste lagoons and sprayed on fields. The stench makes life miserable for folks who live near big hog farms, and overflows pollute waterways. Recently a coalition of attorneys launched a major class action suit in North Carolina against the nation's largest hog corporation, Smithfield Foods. Leda Hartman reports.

HARTMAN: One day last summer 68-year-old Charlotte Savage stepped outdoors to hang her laundry and the stench from the big hog farm next door nearly knocked her down. She says she had to call her granddaughter to help her back in the house.

C. SAVAGE: I don't know if anything else smells like it. It's just a stinking rotten smell. The buzzards even come to it.

HARTMAN: Charlotte Savage says it's like this whenever her neighbors spray the liquid from the farm's hog waste lagoon onto the field across the road from her house. Browns of Carolina, a Smithfield subsidiary, opened the farm in 1994. Mrs. Savage says the smell sometimes makes her family prisoners in their own home, a modest ranch house in the southeastern part of North Carolina. And her 72-year-old husband Julian says the bad air has left him short of breath to the point where he can't work outdoors.

J. SAVAGE: See all them buildings that fell down? I can't get up there and tend to them no more.

HARTMAN: Julian Savage stands near the remains of what used to be his hog farm. The three decaying wooden outbuildings with their rusting tin roofs contrast sharply with the ten large metal hog houses in the next field over. So does his way of farming. In his day Julian Savage raised about 300 pigs twice a year. Next door, they raise 30,000 pigs three times a year.

J. SAVAGE: We had them out on the open ground. Of course, we had a place up yonder could feed them, but they could go and come.

HARTMAN: And the waste?

J. SAVAGE: The waste stayed out there in the field. It didn't come down this road and it didn't go to the Cape Fear River.

HARTMAN: When the Savages found out about the class action lawsuit filed by the Water Keepers Alliance, they added their names as plaintiffs. The Savages, the Water Keepers Alliance, and other plaintiffs are being represented by a legal team that includes Doug Abrams, a Raleigh lawyer. The lawsuit filed in state superior court charges Smithfield with being a public nuisance. Not only do the waste lagoons stink and pollute the waterways, the plaintiffs argue, they also carry airborne pathogens that can make people sick. Abrams says the lawsuit is based on the notion of common-law, going back to Colonial times.

ABRAMS: And there was this concept that you had the right to do anything you wanted to on your property as long as you didn't harm somebody else. You have to have air to breathe. You have to have water to drink. And you can't ruin somebody else's property or laws with what you do on your own property.

HARTMAN: The plaintiffs want to make Smithfield do two things. First, to replace the lagoons with a more environmentally sound waste disposal method, and second, to pay for cleaning up eastern North Carolina's rivers. That could cost more than $15 billion, Abrams says. And the North Carolina suit is just one of several that are in the works against Smithfield and other corporate hog producers in other states. This national campaign is a watershed event. In the past, an environmental group would file suit against a single corporate hog farm, but the group wouldn't have the resources to sustain that fight.

PAPANTONIO: First of all, for every one lawyer we could hire, they could hire 20.

HARTMAN: That's Michael Papantonio , another lawyer on the legal team suing Smithfield.

PAPANTONIO: That's not the case any more, ladies and gentlemen. For every one dollar we would spend, they would spend 100. That is not the case any more if you are in the hog industry listening to what I have to say. (Applause)

HARTMAN: Papantonio , who is a veteran of the legal wars against asbestos, was speaking at a conference in Newbern, North Carolina, held to publicize the litigation effort. A coalition of 11 powerful law firms have joined the lawsuits and contributed $50,000 each, giving them the staying power to go against a big industry. And the plaintiffs' leader, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., promised a tough fight. In a speech to several hundred supporters, Kennedy said that corporate hog producers have not only hurt the environment, they've also monopolized the industry to the point where most small independent hog farmers have gone out of business. He said the corporations make profits not because they're more efficient than family farmers but because they aren't paying for proper waste disposal. Kennedy says he doesn't mean to make the big producers go bankrupt, he just wants to level the playing field so that family farms can compete once again.


KENNEDY: Because if Smithfield had to pay the true costs of producing a pig, it would have to build a sewage treatment plant on every one of these little factories it's operating. And those sewage treatment plants would cost them tens of millions of dollars to construct and maintain. And at that point the playing field is made equal. And the family farmer can get back on the land and compete equally against them.

(Milling voices)

HARTMAN: Kennedy leaves most of his listeners impressed, but not Bundy Lane. Lane is an eighth generation farmer who raises hogs under contract for one of Smithfield's subsidiaries. Lane says he doesn't mind the fact that even though Smithfield owns the hogs he raises, he owns the waste. He says the lagoon on his farm is nothing more than a liquid compost pile.

LANE: So for me it's a source of organic fertilizer. I created a source of nutrient-rich water in the form of the manure that's in that water that I then apply to my crops. So not only do I get a steady source of income with reduced risk by being in the contract hog farming business, but for me it's been a complete win-win situation. I don't see where the demonization that has attacked the hog industry comes into play.

HARTMAN: Lane worries that he'll find it harder to make a living if the waste disposal regulations get more strict or more expensive. Meanwhile the legal tug of war has just begun. One of the lawyers representing Smithfield is Phil Carlton, a Raleigh attorney who helped the nation's big five tobacco companies negotiate their settlement with the states. Carlton says he has filed a motion to dismiss the case against Smithfield, arguing that the issue of hog waste is best addressed through state regulations, not lawsuits.

CARLTON: What this is about is trying to punish these companies for what they perceive is wrong, and to change the law and make new regulations based on what they think is right. They are trying to substitute themselves for elected officials and do things that they know they can't get through the legitimate process.

HARTMAN: If the case does go to trial, Carlton says, Smithfield has no intention of sitting back and taking the blame for a problem that's shared by the rest of society. He says the courtroom won't be big enough to fit all the defendants Smithfield will call into court.

CARLTON: Those who raise chickens, those who raise cows, those who raise turkeys, along with humans, all contribute to any pollution that exists in these roles . They just single out the one that they think they can paint in that corner and get a big sum of money from.

HARTMAN: Carlton says a better approach would be to negotiate rather than litigate. He points to an agreement made last year between the state attorney general's office and Smithfield, in which the company agreed to invest $15 million for state researchers to come up with alternatives to the open air lagoon. The research is due out next summer. Smithfield has three years to convert its own farms to the new technologies, and also is obliged to help its contract farmers do the same.

(Banging on metal)

J. SAVAGE: Now this, this sprinkler here...

HARTMAN: But for some people who live next door to industrial hog farms, it may be too late to negotiate. Julian Savage for one wants the lawsuit to go ahead. He says if it's successful, he's got plans.

J. SAVAGE: We're going to come and we're going to celebrate. I'm not a drinking man, but we're going to have a good time.

HARTMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Leda Hartman reporting.



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