agriculture, Environment

Senate committee passes amended hog nuisance bill but private property rights still threatened

This is how the sausage is made: Workers in a hog slaughter and processing plant (Photo: US Government Accountability Office)

A piglet’s journey from birth to slaughter to plate is short but circuitous. Over six months, she is born, weaned, grown, finished to weight, transported hundreds of miles in an 18-wheeler to the slaughterhouse, led to a kill chute, stunned unconscious and then her throat cut. Then she becomes ham or bacon or sausage.

House Bill 467 has taken a similar path, but in this story, the measure lives. Filed on March 23 by four Republicans, the bill restricts the compensation aggrieved property owners can receive in nuisance lawsuits against hog farmers.

The bill has spent the last month being finished to weight. Two weeks ago, the full House barely debated the bill, because Speaker Tim Moore fast-tracked it as if he worked on a kill line and had a quota to meet.

Although the House did pass it on third reading, since then, that chamber requested several changes to the measure. Original language would have restricted compensatory damages for even current nuisance lawsuits. Now, those pending legal actions would not be covered by the bill, only those filed on and after the day the measure becomes law.

If the measure does become law, then compensatory damages for temporary nuisances are limited to the fair-market value of the complainant’s property.

The amendment also adds a subsection clarifying what the bill doesn’t restrict — for example, punitive damages for negligence and nuisance or petition for injunctive relief.  The latter entails asking a court to force the swine farmer to fix the problem, such as the drift of sprayed liquid manure, odors, flies, runoff, etc.

The NC Pork Council supports the amendments, CEO Andy Curliss told the committee.

While these changes improve the bill — a low bar, indeed — several Democratic senators said they were concerned that it still strips people of their basic property rights. (This is ironic, considering the GOP has long touted private property rights as the conservative issue uber alles.)

But Republican Sen. Brent Jackson, an agribusinessman, blames “out-of-state lawyers” (code for those meddling New York City folk) for generating these nuisance lawsuits. These attorneys — some from New York, but others from the very North Carolina cities of Chapel Hill and Charlotte — represent low-income, miniority neighbors of industrialized hog farms in these nuisance lawsuits.

“I consider these to be frivolous lawsuits,” said Jackson, who represents Duplin, Johnston and Sampson counties — all hog strongholds. “The industry can’t sustain this. Without the livestock industry there would be tumbleweed rolling down city streets.”

“These are large, corporate, foreign-owned businesses,” like Chinese-owned Murphy-Brown, retorted Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Democrat from Wake County. “They can pay out damages.”

“I understand what you’re saying,” Jackson said. “But it doesn’t matter how big and strong you are. If there aren’t protections that are fair and equitable, you won’t survive.”

Barring a rampant disease outbreak, the industrialized hog industry is arguably too big to fail. In 2013, a Chinese company bought Smithfield Foods, a $14 billion global corporation and the largest pork producer in the world.

The neighbors of these mega-farms are largely minority and low-income. “Is this bill going to have a disparate impact on families?” asked Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a Democrat representing eight counties in the eastern part of the state.

She noted that an industrial hog farm by its nature reduces nearby property values. If there is a payout, the fair-market value of the land would be less than if there had been no farm at all. “How are you going to address the issue of having a lower market value and then reducing the compensation?”

“We want to make them whole,” Jackson replied. “But not over-whole.”

After passing the amendment, the Senate Agriculture Committee gave the bill favorable report by a 10-6 vote. It now proceeds to the Senate Rules Committee.

 

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