During a debate last month over House Bill 467—a failed proposal to shield hog farms owned by a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods from twenty-six federal nuisance lawsuits brought by their neighbors—state representative and bill sponsor Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin and Wayne, called claims that hog waste was ending up on people’s homes preposterous. What’s more, he continued, the people making those claims were lying.
“These allegations are at best exaggerations and at worst outright lies,” said Dixon, a retired farmer who has received more than $115,000 in campaign contributions from Big Pork. “When you talk about spraying fluid on people’s’ houses and peoples’ cars, that does not exist.”
New evidence filed in federal court today, however, suggests that’s exactly what happens.
To get rid of the waste of the thousands of pigs that are on site, hog farms liquify their urine and feces and spray the waste onto large fields via an irrigation system that runs from cesspools to massive sprinkler-like constructs that release mist. Those who reside near the fields have long complained that this excrement rides the wind and ends up on their houses, leaving its mark on homes, mailboxes, and street signs. These claims are central to the lawsuits filed against Murphy-Brown, the Smithfield subsidiary.
The documents filed in court this morning support these claims, showing the presence of Pig2bac, an “established DNA marker for identifying the presence of pig feces.”
The study, completed by Shane Rogers, a former EPA environmental engineer and associate professor at Clarkson University in New York, relied on both air and physical samples collected from the house exteriors of the farms’ neighbors.
Throughout the course of his investigation, Rogers visited “several neighbor homes,” including houses selected randomly the day of his visit. “At every visit and every home, I experienced offensive and sustained swine manure odors to varying intensity, from moderate to very strong,” he wrote.
To test for the presence of pig-manure DNA, Rogers and his team collected DNA swab samples from the exterior walls of the neighbors’ homes as well as air samples. In total, they collected thirty-one samples from the outside walls of the homes and submitted them for DNA testing; fourteen of seventeen homes tested positive for Pig2bac.
Additionally, all six of the dust samples they collected from the air “contained tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of hog feces DNA particles,” Rogers wrote, “demonstrating exposure to hog feces bioaerosols for clients who breathe in the air at their homes. Considering the facts, it is far more likely than not that hog feces also gets inside the clients’ homes where they live and where they eat.”
Rogers described the mechanisms by which the odors from hog operations linger on the clothing of those who live and work nearby, comparing the effect to a nonsmoker spending time in a room that once allowed smokers. After spending time in the field, Rogers and his colleagues carried the scent of pig excrement on their clothing, he wrote: “I personally suffered on an airplane after sampling Greenwood 1 in the barns because I smelled like pig manure all the way home to the Adirondack region of New York following sampling. The important lesson is that the wind does not have to be blowing constantly in the direction of your home to have odors constantly present. The particles from the swine CAFO facilities can be an ever-present source of nuisance for the communities near these facilities.”
Rogers concluded that the presence of pig excrement on the outside of people’s homes is a “physical representation of odor” that they inhale. Based on his findings, he speculated that he would find such conditions present at the homes of all of the plaintiffs involved, though he was unable to test each of them.
“I also believe that to the extent Plaintiffs are concerned or fearful of breathing the foul odors from the hog operations, considering the constituents of the odors and the pollutants present in conjunction with the odors, they have a scientifically justified reason for concern,” he wrote.
In addition, Rogers was allowed access to eight facilities where hogs are kept. From his report, this is part of what he witnessed:
Manure from the hogs is deposited onto the floor. Some of it falls through open “slats” in the floor, and some of it accumulates on the floor in the small pens where hogs live, eat, and sleep, forcing hogs to be covered in their own manure. Many hogs are kept close together. Pigs have a natural instinct to wallow33 in the mud and root in the earth. However, these hogs never contact the dirt or earth. They have no room to defecate in one area and live in another as hogs instinctively do. Therefore, they get coated with feces. These physical circumstances relate to the amount of odor, gas and particulate emissions that are occurring.
Read the complete brief here.
And Rodgers’s report:
Those suing Murphy-Brown hope these documents accomplish two goals: first, to help them win their cases; second, to convince Governor Cooper to veto HB 467. While the bill was stripped of a provision nullifying existing nuisance lawsuits against hog farms, the legislation that passed the House and Senate would greatly limit future litigants’ ability to seek damages in nuisance cases.
The N.C. Pork Council has declined repeated requests for comment on HB 467, but sources with knowledge of the lobbying effort currently taking place say that hog-industry advocates were hoping that Cooper would sign the bill before this information came to light.
On Thursday afternoon, Samantha Cole, Cooper’s deputy press secretary, told the INDY that the governor “understands that there are real concerns with this bill. He’s hearing from people with a variety of points of view on this issue and will continue to do so as he makes his decision.”
But just moments ago, Cooper vetoed the bill: In an email, N.C. Conservation Network policy advocate Jamie Cole praised the governor’s decision:
“We applaud Gov. Cooper for standing with vulnerable communities in our state and standing up for property rights. H467 would erode the ability of families to enjoy the use of their property. Currently, industrial hog operations pollute their land with a variety of nuisances. H467 would tie the hands of people suffering these effects and limit their ability to defend their homes.
These nuisances disproportionately affect communities of color, and it’s encouraging to see Gov. Cooper standing behind them on such an important issue.”
The N.C. Pork Council, on the other hand, was less than thrilled: “[HB 467] strikes a balance in providing clarity and certainty to farmers while ensuring that property owners remain protected. Our laws offer special protections for a wide range of—and farmers are among them. North Carolina’s pork producers follow stringent environmental regulations.
The INDY will update this story as more information becomes available.