To an outsider, it might seem like business as usual. Murphy played politics and his company came out for the better. But for Don Webb, a living history book on all things related to hog farming, something was amiss.
A former hog farmer, Webb bore witness to the industrys explosive growth firsthand. He grew up on a farm in Stantonsburg and cropped tobacco and picked corn with his bare hands. His father sold pigs right off the family farm. After a brief stint as a PE teacher, Webb started a successful hog farm in Northampton County in the mid-70s. But after an up-close experience with pig waste management, Webb has since become a thorn in the industrys side.
Webb, 76, has a thick drawl and is prone to impassioned rants. Next to a chair inside his house, he sets an otherwise unassuming leather briefcase decorated with bumper stickers bearing such slogans as Welcome to North Carolina: Heaven 4 Hogs, Hell 4 Humans.
They say they love America, but they really love somethin else, he scoffs. Its green. How many hog pens have you found next to a country club?
Webbs transition from hog farmer to fuming activist was years in the making. He got into hog farming at the urging of a friend. At his farms peak, he had about 4,000 hogs a small number by todays standards, but enough to turn a handsome profit. He managed the pig waste similarly to how todays farms do it. The slanted floors of his farms hog house filtered the waste into cesspools. When those filled up, they sprayed it elsewhere.
It was a matter of conscience that charted his current path, he says. Several of his neighbors told him that the stench from his farm was making their lives miserable. They grumbled about being quarantined indoors on sweltering summer evenings, unable to go outside on account of the pungent, fly-infested air.
I said, Suppose that was my mama and daddy back there, he says. How would I feel? I hit the brakes on that truck.
In 1979, after about five years in the business, Webb sold his hogs and relocated to Cape Hatteras, where the air was fresh. When he returned to Duplin County six years later, however, he was greeted once again by that stench. Thats what ultimately turned him into an activist, he says.
These are human beings, Webb says. Theyve worked their whole lives and are tryin to have a clean home and a decent place to live, and they cant go on their front porch and take a deep breath.
While legal, hog farms longstanding practice of disposing of excess waste by spraying it as mist on to nearby fields has proven controversial. Farms neighbors have complained that the system literally brings excrement to their doorsteps, allowing the liquefied waste to ride the wind to their property. In May, Shane Rogers, a former EPA and USDA environmental engineer, published a report that concluded that this is exactly what happens.
The study, which was filed in court documents on behalf of plaintiffs suing Murphy-Brown, relied on both air and physical samples collected from the exteriors of homes located near Murphy-Brown hog fields. The homes were selected randomly, and at every visit and every home, I experienced offensive and sustained swine manure odors to varying intensity, from moderate to very strong, Rogers wrote.
To test for the presence of pig-manure DNA, Rogers and his team collected DNA swab samples from the exterior walls of homes and from the air itself. In total, they collected 31 samples from the outside walls of 17 homes and submitted them for DNA testing; 14 of the 17 homes tested positive.
Additionally, all six of the dust samples taken 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 clients homes where they live and where they eat.
Anderson, Murphy-Browns attorney, disputes the notion that the companys farms and contractors disrupt their neighbors quality of life.
Murphy-Brown requires all of its company farms to operate properly and in compliance with strict state regulatory requirements, he wrote in an email. We expect the same of all contract growers. Even more, we expect all farmers to be good neighbors. If any neighbor has a problem with a farm, tell us and we will do our best to fix it.
Promised a pie in the sky
In an interview, state representative Jimmy Dixon, a former poultry farmer and a Duplin County Republican who is perhaps the hog industrys most outspoken ally in the general assembly, makes three fundamental beliefs abundantly clear.
One, he believes the Murphy-Brown plaintiffs claims are at best exaggerations, at worst misrepresentations and theyre being recruited by greedy lawyers who have promised a pie in the sky.
For people to say they cant go outside, I cant barbeque, I cant invite my neighbors over, those are exaggerations, Dixon says.
Two, he doesnt buy studies that point to hazards associated with hog farms because a lot of these studies, a lot of them, begin with the end product in mind, and then they construct it for the outcome.
And three, he doesnt think any additional regulations are necessary. Whats more, hes frustrated that critics dont acknowledge the industrys waste management improvements over the last 40 years, which he calls unbelievable.
Hes been no less forthcoming in his public comments.
On 5 April, Dixon stepped past dozens of protesters into a crowded committee meeting inside the legislature. He was there to defend his controversial pet project, House Bill 467, which would cap the amount of money that property owners living near agriculture and forestry operations, including hog farms, could collect in nuisance lawsuits.
Under HB 467, people could only collect damages equal to the reduction in their propertys fair market value which critics argue is already low thanks to the presence of the nearby farms. One Democratic representative estimated that, if Dixons bill passed, property owners could only recoup around $7,000 over three years.
Importantly, the bill didnt just seek to limit future nuisance lawsuits. It would also have negated the 26 pending claims against Murphy-Brown.
Introducing the bill, Dixon said it seeks to promote farming by clarifying and adjusting the maximum compensatory damages that can be awarded.
Throughout the 40-minute committee discussion, Dixons arguments were met by an admixture of support, anger and skepticism. Representative Amos Quick III, a Democrat , questioned Dixon about the bills discriminatory impact, because the plaintiffs are predominantly African American.
Mark Dorosin of the UNC Center for Civil Rights drilled down on that point during public comments, citing research showing that the proportions of African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans living within three miles of industrial hog operations are 1.5, 1.39 and 2.18 times higher, respectively, than the proportion of white residents.
A few days later, following heightened media scrutiny, the bills opponents scored a victory. The contentious provision invalidating the pending lawsuits against Murphy-Brown was stripped from the bill. With it gone, HB 467 cleared the house easily, then the senate.
On 5 May the same day Rogerss study showing the presence of pig fecal matter on the exteriors of homes near hog farms was filed in court Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, saying he opposed special protection for one industry.
The hog industry fought back. In addition to its eight registered lobbyists, Smithfield enlisted the services of Tom Apodaca, a former senator from Hendersonville. Its efforts paid off. On 10 May, the house voted 7440, mostly along party lines, to override Coopers veto. The following day, the senate followed suit. HB 467 became law.
Two weeks later, Murphy-Brown filed a motion in federal court, asking a judge to apply HB 467 retroactively, thus negating the pending lawsuits despite the fact that the legislature had explicitly voted to remove that provision from the bill. The court has not yet ruled on that motion.
Deep financial ties exist between HB 467s backers and the hog industry. Cumulatively, house Republicans who supported HB 467 have received more than $272,000 in campaign contributions from the industry throughout their careers, according to an INDY analysis of campaign finance records. Dixon has received $115,000, including $36,250 from individuals associated with Murphy-Brown and $9,500 from the Pork Council. The house speaker, Tim Moore, has garnered $44,650. Senator Brent Jackson, who sponsored the senate companion bill to HB 467, has received more than $130,000 from industry associates.
If you Google hog farms and North Carolina youll see one name pop up again and again: Elsie Herring.
Elsie Herring. Photograph: Alex Boerner
A copper-haired 69-year-old, Herring lives on the same property her mother, the daughter of a slave, lived on for 99 years. Herrings childhood memories are built around her familys land in Wallace of growing and farming tobacco, cucumbers, soybeans, strawberries, and peanuts; of canning food; of smoking and curing meat. Even though those were Jim Crow days, she remembers it as a happier, healthier time. Everything was segregated, but we still got along. But now, after these hogs came in, everything has gone downhill.
Herrings home is adjacent to a farm that contracts with Murphy-Brown to raise 1,180 of its pigs, according to DEQ records and a lawsuit she filed. The lawsuit contends that the hog facility began spraying liquefied waste in the mid-90s and planting trees between their properties to act as a buffer, which proved ineffective.
Herring says her grandfather purchased the property in the 1880s from his aunt, who was white and his slave mistress. Her parents built the home she now lives in; her mother, father, brother and sister all lived on the land until they passed away.
Herring came back to Wallace from New York in 1993 to look after her elderly mother and her brother, who had Downs syndrome. About two years after she moved back, the spraying began, Herring says. She vividly remembers the time it happened an otherwise uneventful Saturday evening.
We were just sitting here having our Saturday evening like we usually do, enjoying, she recalls. And in a short time, we heard this bursting sound, and then all of a sudden it started stinking like nothing youve experienced.
Herring felt like she was going to be sick, so she went back inside.
If you would have stayed out there, she says, you would have probably had to end up going to the hospital because this stuff was being released and youre breathing it in.
After that, Herring says, the spraying happened all day, every day.
The stench became so unbearable that Herring eventually contacted the Duplin County sheriffs office, the Duplin County department of health, and the NC department of environmental and natural resources for help all to no avail, she says. She became involved in local activist networks, joining the NC Environmental Justice Network and the Warsaw-based organization Rural Empowerment and Community Health, or Reach.
In 2007, her activism took her to the lawn outside the general assembly, where she joined other Reach members to protest about the effects of hog farming for more than 50 consecutive hours. According to her lawsuit, Herring called or wrote letters, or both, to the Governor, the state and local health departments, the Attorney General of North Carolina, the United States Justice Department, DENR, the local sheriff and police departments, the county commissioners, the federal EPA, her congressman, and the owner of the hogs [Murphy-Brown].
Though the spraying has subsided over the past few months perhaps as a result of the lawsuits, Herring says, though she cant be sure life is still no picnic. She ticks off a list of issues she believes the stink and the spraying have brought: flies, mosquitoes, mice, poisonous snakes. To avoid the odor, she stays indoors.
Its like living in prison, she says.
HB 467 came as a surprise, she says. But, to her, its motives were transparent. Like many of her fellow activists, shes all too aware of the racial dynamics at play.
This is environmental racism, she says. This is my family land. And Im sure race played a part when they decided they wanted to develop this area.
Herring sighs. Weve been asked many times, Why dont you just move? Move and go where? I dont want to move. I never knew my grandfather, but I know he walked on this ground. And his family.
She pauses and looks at her house.
Its my land.
Throughout the debate over House Bill 467, the arguments proffered by state representative Jimmy Dixon and other supporters centered on hardworking farm families besieged by frivolous lawsuits filed by greedy, out-of-state attorneys.
You do know that the original lawyers were banned from North Carolina, Dixon told the INDY, while shrugging off the plaintiffs claims about the stench associated with hog farms as exaggerations.
Mark Anderson, an attorney representing Murphy-Brown LLC, brought up the same point in an email: You should know that the original claims were filed by out-of-state lawyers who went door to door, actively recruiting plaintiffs and promising them large sums of money if they joined the lawsuits. The lawyers conduct led to them being thrown out of the cases because of ethics violations.
The out-of-state-lawyers claim is a go-to for the bills champions, and for good reason: its entirely accurate.
The Salisbury-based Wallace & Graham is now handling the plaintiffs 26 federal nuisance lawsuits against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, but that wasnt always the case. The suits were initially filed in Wake County superior court in 2013 by two out-of-state firms, whose lawyers recruited clients in North Carolina without a state license and signed hundreds of clients to contracts requiring them to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for work performed on their behalf, even if the attorneys decided to drop the case, as the News & Observer previously reported.
In hearings, Judge Donald Stephens admonished the firms for their behavior and, after the contracts were rewritten, required that they partner with a North Carolina firm, which ended up being Wallace & Graham. About two months after the firms teamed up, Wallace & Grahams attorneys told Stephens they could no longer work with the out-of-towners. Stephens then took away the out-of-state lawyers privilege to practice in his court and said he didnt ever want to see them again or hear from them again.
Wallace & Graham refiled the lawsuits in federal court, but the behavior of the attorneys booted from the case has left its mark, giving the industrys defenders ammunition with which to accuse the Murphy-Brown plaintiffs or their attorneys of cupidity.
In a statement to the INDY, Smithfield Foods called the lawsuits a cash grab. At a house committee meeting in April, Dixon accused the plaintiffs current lawyers of manipulating their clients: When the final chapter is written on these cases, well see the people being represented are being prostituted for money.
In a statement, Wallace & Graham said: We are proud to represent our clients in this litigation. They look forward to having their day in court.
But that: Until the trial is over, we choose to make no further comment on the cases.
This story was first published by Indyweek news, culture & commentary for Raleigh, Cary, Durham, Chapel Hill. Read Part 2 and Part 3.