agriculture, Environment

Gov. Cooper vetoes hog nuisance bill; new court documents show fecal bacteria from hogs on homes

This post has been updated with a comment from Rep. Jimmy Dixon.

Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed House Bill 467, which would sharply curb the rights of private property owners to sue hog farmers in so-called nuisance lawsuits.The bill had passed the House 68-47, and the Senate 74-42.

The measure would restrict the amount of compensatory damages people could recover if they win nuisance lawsuits. The amount is limited to the value of their property, which is already reduced because of its proximity to a swine farm.

Bill proponents, including Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a farmer from Duplin County, complain that the lawsuits are financially hurting the industrialized swine industry. That claim has not been substantiated, since nearly all large hog operations are owned by Murphy-Brown, the world’s largest pork producer, or Prestage, another multi-million company.

In an email, Dixon said the bill does not “severely limit” the legal options available to those living near hog farms. It is true that plaintiffs can sue for punitive damages or personal injury or request an injunction. But the point is these nuisance lawsuits that the bill targets are not frivolous. A jury or judge has found in favor of the property owner, yet the bill still caps the amount of money they can receive.

Opponents of the bill pointed out it infringes on private property rights. It also disproportionately impacts communities of color, which are more likely to live near the farms. Several House members also questioned the constitutionality of the bill. “There is a great danger this bill treads on very thin constitutional ice. We cannot set rules  for court,” said Rep. Joe John, during the House floor debate last month.

The NC Pork Council, which supported the measure, issued this statement:

The North Carolina Pork Council is disappointed in Gov. Cooper’s veto of a bill that passed the legislature with bipartisan support. The ratified bill strikes a balance in providing clarity and certainty to farmers while ensuring that property owners remain protected.

Our laws offer special protections for a wide range of industries – and farmers are among them. North Carolina’s pork producers follow stringent environmental regulations.

We encourage the legislature to override the veto in support of a vital sector of North Carolina’s economy.

The North Carolina Conservation Network, which opposed the bill, issued this statement from policy advocate Jamie Cole:

“We applaud Gov. Cooper for standing with vulnerable communities in our state and standing up for property rights. H467 would erode the ability of families to enjoy the use of their property. Currently, industrial hog operations pollute their land with a variety of nuisances. H467 would tie the hands of people suffering these effects and limit their ability to defend their homes.

These nuisances disproportionately affect communities of color, and it’s encouraging to see Gov. Cooper standing behind them on such an important issue.”

Also today, court documents filed in federal court contain an expert report by a scientist whose sampling detected fecal bacteria from industrialized hog farms on the exterior of neighbors’ homes and in the air of their yards. Many residents have complained that when hog waste is sprayed on fields, it drifts onto their property. The health effects, loss of quality of life and devaluation of property are behind several nuisance lawsuits.

The documents were filed by Wallace & Graham, a law firm in Salisbury, that is representing neighbors of the farms in a nuisance lawsuit.

According to Dr. Shane Roger’s expert report, 14 of 17 homes sampled tested positive, “indicating a recent history of  impaction of hog feces onto their homes,” the documents read. All six dust samples collected from the air using vacuum filtration devices at the yards of four clients — as far as nearly a half-mile from hog farms — “contained tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of hog feces DNA particles.”

This indicates, according to Rogers that residents are exposed to hog feces particles even in their homes.

The bacteria, Pig2Bac, was identified and traced to hog feces through DNA fingerprinting. The sampling was conducted from October to December 2016.

These scientific findings contradict Rep. Dixon’s claims during the April 10 House debate that “I want to testify to every single one of you in this chamber, these allegations are at best, exaggerations, and at worst, outright lies. When you talk about spraying a fluid in people’s houses and on their cars, that does not exist.”

Rogers worked for the EPA in its National Risk Management Research Laboratory. His primary research has focused on agriculture and ecosystems, including biotechnologies for wastewater treatment and environmental monitoring.

Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director of NC Environmental Justice Network, which has long fought on behalf of families living near the CAFOs, praised Cooper “for vetoing this unjust bill.”

“H467 was like salt being thrown into the wounds of families who have been suffering from the smells and other nuisances coming from industrial hog operations in eastern North Carolina,” Muhammad said in a prepared statement. “We’re please to see the governor standing up for communities of color, who are particularly affected by this.”

 

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