Quantcast

Rural Americans Breathe Life Into the Fight Against Factory Farm Polluters

Popular
A swine facility in North Carolina. Waterkeeper Alliance Inc. / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Sacoby Wilson

As U.S. livestock farming becomes more industrial, it is changing rural life. Many people now live near Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)—large facilities that can house thousands of animals in close quarters. 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 $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, I see them as breakthroughs after decades of government failure to protect rural communities from negative impacts of CAFOs.

Threats to Health and the Environment

Iowa and North Carolina are the largest pork-producing states in the nation. Hog farms generated $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 standards 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 is not regulated by government agencies.

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 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (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.

Pork producers respond

Although the North Carolina settlement is a major step forward for rural communities, the industry is pushing back. Smithfield Foods has condemned such lawsuits as "nothing more than a money grab by a big litigation machine." The company asserts that because Kinlaw Farm fully complied with all federal, state and local laws and regulations, such lawsuits only threaten the livelihoods and economic prosperity of thousands of North Carolinians employed by the industry.

A few weeks after the April verdict, the judge reduced the settlement from $50.75 million to $3.25 million, pursuant to a North Carolina law which caps punitive damages at either three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded or $250,000. This allotment does not address community members' suffering, and jurors were unaware of the law limiting punitive damages when they reached their decision.

In response to 23 nuisance cases filed by more than 500 residents, the North Carolina legislature recently voted to expand its right-to-farm law, overriding Gov. Roy Cooper's veto. These laws were originally designed to protect farms from people who moved in nearby and then complained about noise and odors. However, industries in some agricultural states have pushed legislatures to expand the statutes to make it harder to sue CAFOs.

An Underregulated Industry

In my view, current measures in place to protect rural communities from factory farms are grossly insufficient. CAFOs have been defined as point sources of pollution under the Clean Water Act for more than 40 years. This means they should have to obtain permits to discharge waste into river, streams or surface waters. But due to industry pushback, lobbying and privacy concerns, it is estimated that only 33 percent of CAFOs operated with such permits as of 2017.

Environmental advocates also contend that CAFOs qualify as stationary pollution source under the Clean Air Act. Instead, the EPA has pursued a voluntary approach for more than a decade that centers on studying how to monitor CAFO air emissions.

In sum, I see governmental agencies as complicit within a system of production that prioritizes private interests rather than the well-being of communities and the environment. Research has shown that these operations disproportionately burden communities of color in rural North Carolina, so this is a major environmental justice issue.

In order for CAFOs and communities to coexist harmoniously, the entire structure of the present food system must change. In addition to strengthening regulations on factory farm emissions and discharges, I think regulators should provide incentives for CAFOs to invest in sustainable technologies and alternative waste management systems.

These farms should also be offered incentives to publicly report quality and safety data and expected impacts on host and nearby communities. This kind of information would increase rural residents' negotiating power.

Given the Trump administration's anti-regulatory slant and proposed budget cuts, the federal government is unlikely to lead in this area. However, the North Carolina verdicts and pending cases in Iowa could lead to greater industry transparency and empower more rural citizens to take action against CAFOs in their communities.

Disclosure statement: Sacoby Wilson received funding for research on hog CAFOs from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National institutes of Health from 1998-2005.

Crystal Mehdizadeh, a bachelor's degree candidate in public health science at the University of Maryland-College Park, contributed to this article.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signs the so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule on June 19, replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that would have reduced coal-fired plant carbon emissions. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency / Twitter

By Elliott Negin

On July 8, President Trump hosted a White House event to unabashedly tout his truly abysmal environmental record. The following day, coincidentally, marked the one-year anniversary of Andrew Wheeler at the helm of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), first as acting administrator and then as administrator after the Senate confirmed him in late February.

Read More Show Less
A timber sale in the Kaibab National Forest. Dyan Bone / Forest Service / Southwestern Region / Kaibab National Forest

By Tara Lohan

If you're a lover of wilderness, wildlife, the American West and the public lands on which they all depend, then journalist Christopher Ketcham's new book is required — if depressing — reading.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Golde Wallingford submitted this photo of "Pure Joy" to EcoWatch's first photo contest. Golde Wallingford

EcoWatch is pleased to announce our third photo contest!

Read More Show Less
Somalians fight against hunger and lack of water due to drought as Turkish Ambassador to Somalia, Olgan Bekar (not seen) visits the a camp near the Mogadishu's rural side in Somalia on March 25, 2017. Sadak Mohamed / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

World hunger is on the rise for the third consecutive year after decades of decline, a new United Nations (UN) report says. The climate crisis ranks alongside conflict as the top cause of food shortages that force more than 821 million people worldwide to experience chronic hunger. That number includes more than 150 million children whose growth is stunted due to a lack of food.

Read More Show Less
Eduardo Velev cools off in the spray of a fire hydrant during a heatwave on July 1, 2018 in Philadelphia. Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images

By Adrienne L. Hollis

Because extreme heat is one of the deadliest weather hazards we currently face, Union of Concerned Scientist's Killer Heat Report for the U.S. is the most important document I have read. It is a veritable wake up call for all of us. It is timely, eye-opening, transparent and factual and it deals with the stark reality of our future if we do not make changes quickly (think yesterday). It is important to ensure that we all understand it. Here are 10 terms that really help drive home the messages in the heat report and help us understand the ramifications of inaction.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Senator Graham returns after playing a round of golf with Trump on Oct. 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. Ron Sachs – Pool / Getty Images

Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Senate Republican who has been a close ally of Donald Trump, did not mince words last week on the climate crisis and what he thinks the president needs to do about it.

Read More Show Less
A small Bermuda cedar tree sits atop a rock overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. todaycouldbe / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Marlene Cimons

Kyle Rosenblad was hiking a steep mountain on the island of Maui in the summer of 2015 when he noticed a ruggedly beautiful tree species scattered around the landscape. Curious, and wondering what they were, he took some photographs and showed them to a friend. They were Bermuda cedars, a species native to the island of Bermuda, first planted on Maui in the early 1900s.

Read More Show Less
krisanapong detraphiphat / Moment / Getty Images

By Grace Francese

You may know that many conventional oat cereals contain troubling amounts of the carcinogenic pesticide glyphosate. But another toxic pesticide may be contaminating your kids' breakfast. A new study by the Organic Center shows that almost 60 percent of the non-organic milk sampled contains residues of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide scientists say is unsafe at any concentration.

Read More Show Less