LUMBERTON — A bill to limit the financial liability of hog farms stinks if you ask state Rep. Garland Pierce, the senior member of Robeson County’s five-member legislative delegation.
House Bill 467, which has passed the House and is now moving through the state Senate, limits the civil penalty that can be sought by property owners that suffer nuisance from agricultural or forestry operations, including strong hog odors.
The bill originally affected 26 lawsuits pending in federal court against Smithfield Foods subsidiary Murphy-Brown. The suits were filed by 541 North Carolina residents claiming hog farmers spraying fields with waste caused offensive odors, insect infestation and other problems. But during debates Republican lawmakers objected, saying that interfering with a lawsuit was unconstitutional and would “deprive citizens of their legal rights and property rights.”
The latest version of the bill would apply only to lawsuits filed after the bill becomes law. It limits any claims to the “fair market value” of the affected property. The Murphy-Brown lawsuits seek punitive damages and compensation for the impact to their property.
The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Ken Goodman, who represents Robeson, Scotland, Hoke, Richmond and Montgomery counties.
Goodman has said that the bill is to protect small farmers of all kinds.
“This is an agricultural bill and it is not just focused on hogs,” Goodman said. “This is just dealing with nuisance lawsuits. It doesn’t restrict other kinds of lawsuits, including those involving environmental issues.”
Goodman told The Robesonian that he has heard from many small farmers who support the bill as now written.
“There are a lot of small farmers, and this bill is not just for livestock farmers — people have zeroed in on hog farmers, but I think it will benefit all people that have small farms in our part of the state,” Goodman said. “I just thought it was the right thing to do.”
But Pierce disagrees. He objects to those filing nuisance lawsuits in the future only being able to obtain compensation equal to the market value of their property, and believes they should be able to be compensated for negative impact on the quality of their life.
“I support our smaller local farmers, but this is not about them,” he said. “This is all just about one company who has come to the General Assembly to get them out of court. It’s about a big conglomerate who wants to have lawsuits against it thrown out. I don’t know of any small farmers who are being sued … . I don’t think the General Assembly should be the judge and jury in this case. It should not be choosing a winner or loser.”
Goodman and Reps Charles Graham and Brenden Jones, who also represent part of Robeson County, were among the 68 lawmakers who voted to approve HB 467. Pierce was one of 47 to vote against the legislation.
In North Carolina raising pigs and hogs is a nearly $3 billion a year industry, according to the 2012 agricultural census.
There are 50 active hog farms currently in Robeson County, said Taylor Chavis, a North Carolina Cooperative Extension agent. Most of these farms are independent contractors who supply Smithfield or Murphy-Brown. Robeson is one of the top livestock producing counties in North Carolina, generating $83.3 million in sales in 2012.
The lawsuits allege that 89 hog farms spray waste, the smell of which comes across property lines and forces neighbors to flee indoors or leave their property until the spraying stops. Fourteen of the farms are owned by Murphy-Brown, but 75 are owned and operated by independent contractors that supply Murphy-Brown with animals. The lawsuits are filed against Murphy-Brown, not against local farmers that supply the hog processor.
Smithfield is owned by Chinese-based, state-run Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd, and claims to be the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor. Its plant in Tar Heel employees about 4,900 people and can process 35,000 hogs a day.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly. Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.