agriculture, Environment

Legislators have gone home, but the week ahead includes key dates on Chemours, coal ash, red wolves, hog waste and more

Red wolves are featured in a diorama at the Coastal North Carolina Wildlife Refuges Gateway Visitor Center in Manteo. US Fish and Wildlife is proposing new rules that would allow people to legally kill them outside of Dare County. (Photo by Lisa Sorg)

The Legislative Building might be quiet as a tomb, but state and federal agencies are crafting critical environmental policies that will affect North Carolina’s air, water and endangered species.

Tuesday, July 10: Already on the brink of extinction in the wild, the 40 or so endangered red wolves have a dim future in eastern North Carolina. Federal wildlife officials want to allow people to kill them outside of government lands in Dare County, a proposal that runs counter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission of keeping species from being snubbed out.

USFWS would reduce the existing red wolf recovery area from six counties to just one. Wolves who wander outside “protected” territory, which includes the Dare Bombing Range, can be killed without a federal permit. This habitat can support no more than 15 wolves, and any ahem, “extraneous” animals could be removed from the wild and shipped off to zoos and nature centers, where they’ll spend the rest of their lives essentially on house arrest.

USFWS is hosting a public meeting on its proposal  from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., with a public hearing to follow at 7 p.m. at Roanoke Festival Park in Manteo.

Duke Energy wants to build a fly ash processing facility at its HF Lee plant in Goldsboro, which could convert up to 300,000 tons of coal ash or reuse in cement, annually. There are two other such projects in North Carolina at the utility’s Buck and Cape Fear plants, built under the 2016 coal ash management law. That law requires Duke Energy to identify three of it ash impoundments within North Carolina where the waste can be processed for beneficial use.  While that helps draw down the ash stored in impoundments, a critical source of groundwater pollution, these operations can still emit pollutants such as lead, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter. 

A public hearing on the proposed project is slated for 7 p.m. at Wayne Community College, Moffatt Auditorium, 3000 Wayne Memorial Drive, in Goldsboro. Interested parties may submit written or oral comments during the public hearing. The public comment period remains open until July 13; you can also send comments via email to DEQ.

Jury selection begins for the third hog nuisance trial in US District Court in Raleigh. This case is out of Pender County, where neighbors of Greenwood Farms, a 10,000-hog operation, are suing Murphy-Brown, the world’s largest pork producer. Murphy-Brown lost its first two cases, in Bladen and Duplin counties, respectively. The NC Farm Act, passed by legislators last month, ensures that these lawsuits against livestock or forestry operators will be the last of their kind, unless someone challenges the statute on constitutional grounds.

Wednesday, July 11: Communities of color and low-income neighborhoods are often burdened with the environmental fallout from natural gas pipelines, Superfund sites, polluting industries or enormous hog operations. Yet these issues are often given short shrift by government agencies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which all but ignored environmental justice concerns in its approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In May, DEQ Secretary Michael Regan and Gov. Roy Cooper announced their appointments to state’s first Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board. The group holds its inaugural meeting in Hollister in Halifax County, at the Haliwa-Saponi Tribal Government Complex,  39021 Hwy 561 from 1 to 5 p.m.

Today is the last day to comment on DEQ’s proposed court order against Chemours over its discharge and emissions of GenX and similar compounds. In June, DEQ filed paperwork in Bladen County Superior Court, asking a judge to impose several environmental requirements on the company: Read more

agriculture, Commentary

Rep. Jimmy Dixon breaks the crass-o-meter: Farm families “raped” by Texas lawyers


Rep. Jimmy Dixon: His guest column is riddled with offensive references to rape. (Photo: NCGA)

Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County is notorious for eructing coarse pronouncements and unfounded accusations in public. For example, during one committee meeting , the Duplin County Republican recommended Gov. Cooper get a “spanking” and in another, claimed the Cape Fear public utility was politicizing levels of GenX in Wilmington’s drinking water.

But his recent rant about the hog nuisance lawsuits has broken the crass-o-meter. His casual and inappropriate use of the term “rape”  diminishes the traumatic experience of actual sexual assault victims.

“How do you feel knowing you allowed the Texas lawyers to rape these [farm] families?” Dixon wrote, calling out law firm Wallace and Graham in a guest column published in the News-Argus of Goldsboro. (The piece is not online, but the paper confirmed its publication.)

Dixon posted a longer version of his offensive diatribe on Facebook, at 12:34 a.m. on June 30, with more references to rape: “Does it feel any different than when you raped the Kinlaw family? Probably not because you are getting ready to economically rape all the other families you have sued.”

Wallace and Graham, based in Salisbury, hired a Dallas-based attorney Michael Kaeske to argue the plaintiffs’ cases in federal court. Murphy-Brown, the defendant, is represented by McGuireWoods, which is headquartered in Virginia and has offices not only in Raleigh, but also internationally, including Beijing and Brussels.

Murphy-Brown has lost both cases, with juries awarding millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages to neighbors of industrialized hog farms.

Dixon continued his sexually obsessed prose, using the word “pimping,” while questioning Wallace and Graham’s expenses, of which he has no direct knowledge. “Have you shared with those good black neighbors of these frightened hard-working family farmers how much your expenses are going to be? Probably not. Because you know when they find out they are going to realize just how badly you have raped and prostituted them for your greedy benefit.”

He also criticized US District Court Senior Judge Earl Britt for allowing the cases to be heard. “He doesn’t have his thumb on the scales. His sorry ass is sitting on the scales!”

Dixon himself is a turkey farmer but is a close friend of the hog industry. In the first quarter of the year, half of Dixon’s $81,775 in campaign contributions came from agribusiness. He received $37,150 from various individual farmers and agribusinessmen and $5,200 from Smithfield, which owns Murphy-Brown. (This coziness could help explain one of Dixon’s parting shots: “I hope Smithfield has the moral courage to tell you skunks that they are going to fight you till hell freezes over!!!”)

And McGuireWoods — yes, that McGuireWoods — gave Dixon $1,000 on May 4, about a week after Murphy-Brown lost its first nuisance case.

Jimmy Dixon Editorial by Lisa Sorg on Scribd


BREAKING: Neighbors 2, Murphy-Brown 0: Jury awards plaintiffs $25 million in hog nuisance suit

Duplin County, human population 58,000, hog population 2 million. The Joey Carter farm, whose hogs are owned by Murphy-Brown, is near Kenansville.

This is a breaking news story. Look for more in-depth analysis of the trial and the significance of the verdict on Monday.

After three days of deliberation, a 12-person federal jury has awarded Elvis and Vonnie Williams more than $25 million in compensatory and punitive damages in a hog nuisance suit against the world’s largest pork producer, Murphy-Brown/Smithfield.

The Williamses live in Duplin County near a 4,780-head industrialized hog farm. Joey Carter owns the farm, but Murphy-Brown owns the pigs and dictates every aspect of the operation. That includes the waste management system, composed of open-pit lagoons and spray fields, which stink and attract flies, gnats, buzzards, as well as generate dust and truck traffic.

The jury awarded each Williams $65,000 in compensatory damages and $12.5 million apiece in punitive damages. A jury can award punitive damages only if it finds a defendant acted “intentionally, maliciously, or with utter disregard for the rights and interests of the plaintiff.”

Juries also use punitive damages to deter further wrongdoing by the defendant or others.

A state cap on punitive damages, though, limits the amount to no more than $250,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is greater. In this case, the greater amount would be $250,000 each, for a total of $315,000 per plaintiff. The judge is in charge of reducing the amount; state law prevents juries from knowing in advance that there is a cap on punitive damages.

It is expected that Murphy-Brown will appeal to the Fourth Circuit.

This case was considered the defense’s strongest. Per the court, the plaintiffs attorneys and the defense attorneys alternate between choosing the parties for each trial. The plaintiffs’ attorneys at Wallace and Graham in Salisbury chose the parties in the first trial, which ended in a $50 million judgment for the plaintiffs, reduced to $3.25 million. The defense team at McGuireWoods chose the parties in this trial. The trial lasted nearly a month, and was extremely contentious.

At one point, the defense motioned for a mistrial because a juror had informed the court that another juror had seen something on the internet about the NC Farm Act. The Act, which is now law, was written specifically to all but prohibit neighbors from suing industrialized hog farms.

Verdict by Lisa Sorg on Scribd


In North Carolina, several endangered species are on the ropes

Red Wolf

The survival of several threatened and endangered species in North Carolina became even more precarious this week, as government officials published preliminary decisions on the red wolf, dwarf wedgemussel and yellow lance mussel.

The saga of the endangered red wolf in northeastern North Carolina has dragged on for years. Since the mid-2000s, when the population peaked at around 130, the number of red wolves has plummeted to fewer than 40. They’ve been hit by cars, have died naturally, but also have been illegally shot by hunters mistaking them for coyotes or people who just don’t like wolves.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is now proposing to reduce the existing red wolf recovery area from six counties to just one — Dare County — a decrease in acreage of 90 percent. This habitat can support fewer than 15 wolves.

Any remaining animals that wander off federal property — the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge or the Dare Bombing Range — could be legally killed. Currently, no one can legally kill a red wolf except under narrow circumstances. For example, people who want to kill a red wolf — perhaps they are harming livestock — must request permission from wildlife officials via a “take” permit. If a wolf is imminently threatening a human, pet or livestock, then it may be killed, although the incident must be reported to wildlife officials.

USFWS published its proposal in the Federal Register today. The agency has also scheduled a public hearing for Tuesday, July 10 at Roanoke Festival Park in Manteo. A public information session will be held from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.; the public hearing follows from 7 to 9. The public comment period ends July 30.

Policy Watch will feature additional coverage the day before the event.

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agriculture, Courts & the Law, Environment, Legislature

Shielding Murphy-Brown from nuisance lawsuits sparks a fracas in the streets, a battle in the courts and a struggle in the legislature

The band was in the middle of its set of oldies and country tunes when a bystander in the crowd of 500 people muttered, “Uh-oh. This could be trouble.”

Several husky men had gathered in front of the bandstand on the Bicentennial Mall in Raleigh yesterday afternoon, where farmers, their families, state officials including Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, and Smithfield Foods employees, had assembled for a rally. The men brandished preprinted signs that read “Stand up for NC Farm Families” and “NC Farms can feed stupid. NC Farms can’t fix stupid.”

They flanked another slighter man, whose hand-drawn sign defended migrant farmworkers, as well as neighbors of industrialized hog farms, many of whom have sued Smithfield over the stench, flies, buzzards and truck noise from these enormous operations.

“Your God is watching,” the sign read.

There was a scuffle, with hollering, shoving and pointing. A woman sandwiched herself between two men, trying to defuse the fight. The crowd jeered as a plainclothes police officer, accompanied by another officer in uniform, led the man with the hand-drawn sign, away.

Behind the stage, as the man recorded the interaction, police told him that he could not disrupt a gathering that had received a permit.

“I’m speaking out for the people of eastern North Carolina who have hog shit sprayed on their houses,” he yelled.

The rally occurred on the same day of Gov. Roy Cooper’s expected—and later delivered — veto of Senate Bill  711, the NC Farm Act, as well as the closing arguments in the second of more than a dozen nuisance suits filed in federal court. The common thread in all three events – the rally, the nuisance litigation and the bill – is Murphy-Brown/Smithfield Foods.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the world’s largest pork producer, and its lobbying arm, the NC Pork Council, are the bullies on the block. As has played out in the legislature and in court, it’s become apparent that they use legal maneuvers, a sophisticated public relations machine, political influence and occasionally, even intimidation, to maintain their hold over North Carolina.

In addition to their powerful greenwashing machine, both entities have wielded their considerable influence over the sponsors of Senate Bill 711, including Sen. Brent Jackson. Jackson openly acknowledged on the Senate floor and in committees that he filed the legislation explicitly in response to Smithfield/Murphy-Brown losing the first nuisance suit in federal court.

Through a variety of legal barriers, the NC Farm Act would all but eliminate the right of neighbors to sue Murphy-Brown for nuisance. The Farm Act’s purpose is at best to deter, and at worst, to punish anyone who dares to confront the company. The bill could be up for an override vote as early as Wednesday.

While Murphy-Brown has framed the nuisance suit issue as an attack against small farmers – thus the reason for the rally – the suits are not against the farmers. They are against Murphy-Brown.

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