Struggles against factory farm pollution find traction in court
Neighbors have to contend with noxious odors, toxic emissions, and swarms of insects, and have had little success in obtaining relief – but this could be changing.
On April 26, Murphy Brown LLC, a division of Smithfield Foods, was required to pay US$75,000 in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages in a nuisance lawsuit filed by ten residents of Bladen County, North Carolina, over impacts from a nearby hog farm. On June 29, another North Carolina jury awarded $25 million to a couple in Duplin County in a similar lawsuit against Smithfield Foods. Other cases are pending in North Carolina and Iowa.
Smithfield Foods is the largest hog processor and producer in the world, so these verdicts are major victories for people organizing against industrialized animal agriculture. Based on my experience studying environmental health at the community level, they are breakthroughs after decades of government failure to protect rural communities from the negative impacts of CAFOs.
A sprayer soaks a field with liquefied manure and urine from a large-scale hog farm in Duplin County, N.C., January 29, 2015. AP Photo/Emery Dalesio
Threats to health and the environment
Iowa and North Carolina are the largest pork-producing states in the nation. Hog farms generated US$6.8 billion in sales in Iowa in 2012 and $2.9 billion in North Carolina.
They also produce massive quantities of waste. Unlike human biosolids, which must meet regulatory standards for pathogen levels, vector attraction reduction, and metal content, no such measures are required for CAFO waste. Studies have linked exposure to hog farm emissions, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, to symptoms including increased stress, anxiety, fatigue, mucous membrane irritation, respiratory conditions, reduced lung function, and elevated blood pressure.
Hog waste can contaminate ground and surface water reserves through runoff, leaching, and rupturing of storage facilities. High quantities of nitrates and phosphates from both animal waste and fertilizers used to grow feed, can also contaminate rivers and streams.
Bacteria and residual antibiotics present in hog waste have the potential to cause acute illness and infection, as well as antibiotic resistance. Rural communities are especially vulnerable to water contamination because many rely on private well water, which government agencies do not regulate.
U.S. hog farms are concentrated in the Midwest and Southeast.
Impacts beyond the farm
The Bladen County lawsuit charged that waste management techniques employed by Kinlaw Farm, a local hog producer for Murphy Brown LLC, put neighbors’ health at risk and severely lowered their quality of life. The farm stored liquid manure in on-site lagoons and sprayed it on local fields as fertilizer.
High volumes of waste and frequent mishandling exposed nearby residents to noxious odors. The lagoons attracted swarms of insects onto neighboring properties, and plaintiffs complained in the lawsuit that trucks packed with dead animals drove through the neighborhood at all hours of the day.
Such conditions characterize the lives of people who live close to CAFOs. People who cherish the freedom of rural life are anguished when pollution and overpowering smells make it impossible to perform everyday tasks and engage with their community. Many feel imprisoned within their own homes.
In May 2018, Shane Rogers, a former EPA and USDA environmental engineer, published an air quality investigation that provided evidence to support the nuisance lawsuit. Using samples collected from the air and exteriors of homes neighboring Kinlaw Farm, Rogers was able to isolate hog feces DNA at 14 of the 17 homes tested. All six of the dust samples collected from the air contained “tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of hog feces DNA particles.”
Based on such high concentrations, Rogers deemed it highly likely that these contaminants could enter the houses. The presence of fecal matter in homes may provide grounds for a trespassing claim, as it falls under the definition of a physical invasion of another person’s property.