AP

North Carolina is hog country. At the end of 2015 the state had almost the same number of pigs as humans—about 9 million hogs and 10 million people—and hog farming operations brought in well over $2 billion. But hidden in these sizable earnings is a massive cost paid by the state’s residents: a cocktail of pungent smells, toxic runoff, and fecal sludge, which has been shown to affect physical health and mental well-being.

Statewide, there are more than 60,000 homes within a half mile of manure pits where farmers consolidate waste runoff, and almost one million residents live within “a three-mile nuisance zone” of industrial hog farms, according to an analysis from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Traditionally, North Carolina residents could sue hog farmers under nuisance suits, claiming compensation for the decline in quality of life, such as not being able to spend time in their homes or in their yards because of the pervasive stench. This type of legal action served to both compensate the affected parties and dissuade hog farmers from egregiously dumping waste in the region.

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But now, the North Carolina state legislature is slated to approve a bill that would significantly curb residents’ ability to sue farmers. Under House Bill 467 (HB 467) residents that sue hog farms could receive compensation only for the reduction in value of their property, with compensation capped at the “the fair market value of the property.” As the proposed law pegs compensation to property value, low-income communities, which are the most affected by farm runoff, would receive less payment than individuals living in affluent areas.

Supporters of the bill say that it is necessary to protect North Carolina’s valuable hog industry from unwarranted lawsuits, and point to the fact that other states have recently passed similar protective legislation. However, opponents of the bill claim that these lawsuits are an important tool that marginalized communities can use to bring about environmental justice. The bill passed the House of Representatives 68-47, and a slightly modified version of the bill, SB 460 passed the Senate 30-19. The modified version of the bill is now back in the House, where it is awaiting approval.

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“Lawmakers are pushing legislation to strip away the property rights for some of the most underserved communities in North Carolina,” said Ken Cook, president of EWG. “For many families who have to live up against an industrial hog operation, they’re prisoners in their own homes, unable to even go outside due the noxious stench and pollution from the open air manure pits that are often just a stones’ throw away from their property.”

Hogging up all the space

Over the past few decades, while the number of hogs raised in North Carolina has grown, the number of hog farming operations has decreased. More hogs but fewer farms can only mean bigger farms. In North Carolina’s eastern seaboard, where the majority of the state’s hogs are raised, the average pig farm has roughly 10,000 animals. These massive operations create even bigger quantities of waste: hogs generate about 10 times as much feces as humans.

While smaller farms traditionally let their animals roam in fields, fertilizing crops with their droppings, this simply isn’t an option for industrial hog operations (IHOs). Instead, IHOs funnel the urine and feces from the pigs into open-air pools, known as “lagoons.” To keep these cesspools from reaching capacity, the sewage mixture is continuously sprayed into surrounding fields, where it can serve as manure.

As a result, entire areas of North Carolina are literally covered in crap, which, in addition to smelling horribly, can create a long list of health problems. A 2013 report on industrial farming in North Carolina, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, states that “these emissions [from IHOs] may contribute not only to mucosal irritation and respiratory ailments in nearby residents but also decreased quality of life, mental stress, and elevated blood pressure.”

Some of the most harmful implications of living near IHO’s aren’t physical but mental. In an interview with National Geographic, Elsie Herring, a North Carolina resident who lives near a hog farming operation, explained that the odor from the hog waste infiltrates her home even if she closes her doors and windows. "It's very, very offensive," said Herring. "I don't feel comfortable even having people over, because it's embarrassing and humiliating that, you know, you're trying to entertain someone and there's someone eight feet away spraying animal waste on you."

A muddy situation that needs to be cleaned up

The majority of the communities affected by the noxious runoff are low-income, and, according to a 2014 paper by University of North Carolina, “IHOs in North Carolina disproportionately affect Black, Hispanic and American Indian residents.” The report explains that this sort of spatial pattern “is generally recognized as environmental racism.” Additionally, the report goes on state that “the [hog] industry’s close ties with local and state government officials help it to avoid regulation that could protect neighbors, and creates barriers to democracy in rural communities of color.”

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“The people in these communities have suffered long and hard, and it’s time for a change,” said Devon Hall, an activist from Duplin County where the average hog farm has over 7,000 animals, in an interview with The Charlotte Observer. “We’re not advocating putting anybody out of business, but if they can begin…to clean up these farms, then that’s what we want.”

The supporters of the HB 467 claim that current North Carolina nuisance laws are vague, and that residents are suing hog farms in the hopes of gaining cash, not rectifying the pollution problem. Republican state Rep. Jimmy Dixon, the principal sponsor of the bill, said in an interview with The News Observer, that many of the lawsuits against hog farmers were filed by residents who "are being prostituted for money" by opportunistic lawyers. Nuisance lawsuits have proved lucrative in the past, with some bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars for plaintiffs. One such case occurred in Missouri in 2010, when a subsidiary of Smithfield was made to pay over $11 million to compensate 15 residents.

Notably, Dixon himself is a retired hog farmer and has received over $100,000 from the pork industry in campaign donations during his career, according to the North Carolina newspaper INDY Week. A large portion of these contributions came from donors associated with Murphy-Brown, a Smithfield-owned pork producer that currently has about two dozen pending lawsuits. The cases against Murphy-Brown involve more over 500 residents who claim they can’t spend time outside or have guests over because of the heavy stench of hog waste.

Getting into the nitty-gritty 

Opponents of HB 467 argue that nuisance lawsuits are critical to maintaining large companies like Murphy-Brown accountable, and that limiting compensation would diminish the lawsuits effectiveness as a deterrent to polluters. According to the EWG, during the debate over HB 467, Ryke Longest, the Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke Law School, hammered the legislation as damaging an individual’s ability to protect their own property:

After you pass this law, no court can protect some landowners’ rights to have a picnic, or cook outside, or grow a garden. If your neighbor’s actions keep you from doing those things and the court finds the neighbor’s use is included in the overly broad category of agricultural or forestry operations, then you are out of luck… In effect, HB 467 is telling agricultural landowners that they have the right to condemn their neighbor’s property.

During its review of the legislation, the Senate added an amendment to the bill which addresses some of the concerns raised by Longest; namely that the legislation would apply only to nuisance lawsuits, and not to other lawsuits brought against IHO’s involving things like “negligence, trespass, personal injury, strict liability.” The amendment also clarified that the law would not apply to punitive damages, which are are awarded to deter defendants from committing the same offense.

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However, many still see a problem with capping compensation for North Carolina's nuisance lawsuits. In an interview with The News Observer, Mona Lisa Wallace, a lawyer representing those suing Murphy-Brown, explained that as the regulation is proposing to peg payment to the value of property, people living in modest, low-income houses would receive far less money than someone living in a large house. Wallace also noted that since North Carolina law currently caps punitive damages at three times the amount of compensatory damages, any law that caps compensatory damages would also inevitably limit punitive damages. Democratic State Senator Angela Bryant, who has voiced opposition to the bill, explained simply that “the limitation of compensatory damages to the property value is not fair.”

“For so long, our concerns have been downplayed,” said Hall in an interview with Quartz. “But when we hear the powers that be say, ‘it’s not that bad,’ it is always someone who doesn’t have the same skin complexion as myself. It’s a bad feeling. I just feel powerless, frustrated.”