After lawyers gave their closing remarks in a groundbreaking trial over the stench of hog farms in Eastern North Carolina, U.S. District Court Judge Earl Britt left the courtroom with a parting thought:
“My only comment is that I am tired of looking at that dirty hog,” he said, referring to a waste-coated, life-size hog model that has been sitting inside the courtroom for the past three weeks. Then, Britt dismissed the ten-person jury to begin deliberating the outcome of a trial that could have major implications for the future of commercial hog farming in North Carolina.
The case that closed yesterday afternoon was the first in a series of twenty-six federal lawsuits filed by neighbors of hog farms against Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of the Chinese-owned global food giant Smithfield Foods. The plaintiffs suing Murphy-Brown argue that the company’s waste-management practices, which consist of storing excess hog waste in open-air cesspools behind hog pens 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 trial involved ten plaintiffs who live near Kinlaw Farm, a large-scale hog operation in Bladen County that contracts with Murphy-Brown to raise about 15,000 hogs. Those hogs produce a tremendous amount of waste: about 153,000 pounds a day, according to Mike Kaeske, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. Since the trial began, Kaeske told the jury, Kinlaw Farm has produced enough waste to fill up the entire courtroom.
“It only takes common sense to know that 153,000 pounds of hog waste stinks,” an exasperated Kaeske said in his closing statement. “And that it affects the neighbors. They told you.”
Attorneys for Smithfield contest plaintiffs’ claims that Kinlaw’s hog operation has negatively interfered with their lives, pointing out that the neighbors involved in the case never filed complaints against the farm for the stench before the litigation began in 2014.
But the plaintiffs say they’ve dealt with nausea, burning and watery eyes, stress, anger, and worry due to the odor from the farms for years. Plaintiff Delois Lewis, according to court records, 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.”
Throughout the trial, Kaeske has argued that Smithfield—a multibillion-dollar company—has enough money to introduce alternative waste-management technologies on its farms that would reduce the stench, such as covering the lagoons and introducing “
” technology, but has done nothing because it doesn’t want to pay for it.
“The industry built these operations this way because it was the cheapest,” Kaeske said. “And they won’t change now because they don’t want to spend the money.”
Kaeske added that WH Group, the Chinese corporation that purchased Smithfield in 2013 for an estimated $4.7 billion, made $2 billion in profits last year. The cost of covering all the lagoons in the North Carolina, Kaeske told the court, would total about $500 million, around half of what Smithfield makes each year after taxes. Between 2010 and 2015, he said, four Smithfield executives earned a combined total of $245 million.
Kaeske’s emphasis on the company’s bottom line did not sit well with Smithfield attorney Mark Anderson, who said he was “frustrated, listening to all this talk about big corporations, big money”—rhetoric he called “anti-corporation and anti-agriculture.” Throughout the trial, hog farming industry advocates have consistently painted the litigation as an assault on hard-working family farmers, although the lawsuits are not targeting the farmers that contract with Murphy-Brown. Anderson, in his opening remarks, said the lawsuits are motivated by “out-of-town people with an agenda.”
Anderson disputed Kaeske’s claim that Murphy-Brown’s waste-management system substantially interfered with its neighbors’ ability to use and enjoy their properties. Before the lawsuits were filed, he argued, the plaintiffs had never filed complaints about Kinlaw Farm—”a gorgeous farm”— he said, before showing a series of picturesque photos from the property.
He also argued that the properties directly around the farm have become more valuable in recent years, including a rental property near the farm that has gotten mainly five-star reviews. And other neighbors who live near the farm aren’t bothered by the smell, he said. “When Mr. Kinlaw has a party they do it right on the farm.”
Kaeske disputed almost everything Anderson said and told the jury that he had consistently had to “come behind Mr. Anderson and show you how what he said was wrong. This is how a company defends itself from neighbors.”
He ended by appealing to jurors’ support for the plaintiffs, telling them that they had more power than the Governor of North Carolina and the Attorney General.
“If you believe that it’s a substantial and unreasonable burden, help me fight for these people,” he concluded.