agriculture

Fact-checking the allegations lodged about hog farms at the National Ag Leaders Roundtable

Sen. Thom Tillis (right) said that trial lawyers “must be stopped.” Tillis, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler (left) and US Rep. David Rouzer (behind Tillis) led a national roundtable in Raleigh defending Smithfield Foods from hog nuisance lawsuits. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The language was bellicose, the atmosphere hostile. The statements, sometimes hypocritical.

With less than 24 hours’ public notice, US Rep. David Rouzer convened a “National Agriculture Leaders Roundtable” at the state fairgrounds on Friday morning. To a room packed with contract swine growers, representatives from the USDA, farming interest groups and state elected officials — including several from out-of-state — blamed Smithfield’s continued legal defeats on the media, environmentalists, lawyers and “biased” US District Court Judge Earl Britt.

“We need to change the statutes and stop [the trial lawyers] from spreading like cancer in the country,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, among whose main campaign contributors is McGuireWoods, the firm defending Smithfield in the nuisance suits. “I hope we can put them out of a job.”

Putting trial lawyers in the unemployment line, though, could hurt one of Rouzer’s main campaign contributors: the political action committee of Rountree and Losee, whose website boasts that the firm’s “litigation attorneys are true trial lawyers.”

The National Pork Producers Council, Prestage Farms and the NC Farm Bureau are also major contributors to Rouzer.

It is true that the contract growers will be hurt as Smithfield Foods continues to lose nuisance lawsuits filed against it. But the world’s largest pork producer is not being forced to pull its pigs from these farms; it is choosing to, rather than address the nuisance caused by the open-pit waste lagoons and sprayfield systems.

However, throughout the 90-minute venting session, roundtable participants lodged several allegations that were either not true or lacked context. Policy Watch factchecked the statements and is reporting their veracity here.

The gag order

Sen. Thom Tillis and Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation: Farmers are under a gag order. “We have to be a voice for them.”
Needs context: There is a gag order, but it does not apply to every hog farmer in North Carolina.
In early July, US District Court Senior Judge Early Britt issued a gag order prohibiting people associated with cases — plaintiffs’ and defense attorneys, potential witnesses, and court personnel — from speaking with the media about any information that is not part of the public record. The intent, Britt said in his order, was to avoid tainting future jury pools with “extrajudicial” information.

Greed

Sen. Tillis: “Trial lawyers are going back to their mansions and not caring [about the farmers.]”
Misleading: Presumably trial lawyers do live in nice homes, and Michael Kaeske did own a mansion in Dallas, according Dallas magazine. However, Smithfield executives are paid even more handsomely.

According to Securities and Exchange filings and company reports, Wan Long, the CEO of WH Group, the Chinese company that owns Smithfield, earned $291 million in salary and stock options last year. When C. Larry Pope retired in 2015, his payout was $25 million. He was ranked No. 86 on the Forbes list of wealthiest CEOs. In 2014, he was scheduled to earn a $46 million payout (see page 62) as part of the WH Group’s purchase of the company. Four other top executives were projected to receive a combined $54 million merger-related income. 

By comparison, many of Smithfield’s contract growers net less than $50,000 a year.

Complaints

Rep. Jimmy Dixon: “Your [Policy Watch’s] tweet that Joey Carter’s farm had a complaint is untrue.”
False: A document from 1985 showed that three Duplin County neighbors did indeed complain about Carter’s expansion of his hog farm. The lagoon, the USDA report read, would be 850 feet from one home, and 1,500 feet from 11 others. One neighbor had planned to sell residential lots on land he owned; the lagoon would be adjacent to the acreage.

“Discussed the problems that might be caused by neighbor’s complaints in future with Joey,” an entry dated March 4, 1985, reads, “but he is determined to proceed.”

On May 7, 1985, an entry reads, “Joey said he has heard that his neighbors plan to sue him for damaging their property values.” 

The jury in the second trial didn’t see this document because it had not been produced via a public records request. The defense did have the document, though, but did  not provide it until after the plaintiffs had rested their case.

Read more

agriculture, Environment

Smithfield loses its third hog nuisance case, jury awards plaintiffs $473 million in damages

A photo of inside a hog barn at Greenwood Farms. (Photo from court exhibits)

See today’s story on NC Policy Watch about yesterday’s closing arguments in this case.

A federal jury took just three hours to award six plaintiffs a total of $473 million in compensatory and punitive damages against Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer.

The jury, which was nearly all white and majority female, awarded each of the neighbors of Greenwood Farms in Pender County $3 million to $5 million each in compensatory damages, even more than the plaintiffs’ attorneys had suggested during yesterday’s closing arguments. The panel tacked on another $75 million in punitive damages for each plaintiff.

The actual award will be less because of a state law capping punitive damages: three times the amount of compensatory or $250,000, whichever is greater. That means even with the cap the total payout could be $94 million.

Ten plaintiffs in the first trial were awarded $50 million, later reduced, and two in the second trial won $25 million. Both amounts were reduced by US District Court Senior Judge Earl Britt.

As with the first and second trials, which Smithfield also lost, the company is expected to appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court.

 

Artis Trial — Jury Verdict — Public by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

The jury returned the verdict while US Rep. David Rouzer and Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler were hosting a national roundtable about hog nuisance lawsuits with high-ranking officials from the USDA, the Farm Bureau, plus Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and many state senators and representatives. At that meeting, several officials warned that agriculture nationwide is “under attack” and that “when country people get angry, it causes war.” Rouzer said nuisance “is like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.” (Look for additional coverage about the roundtable on Monday.)

At that roundtable, Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican turkey farmer from Duplin County said despite its legal defeats, Smithfield will continue with the remaining 20-plus nuisance trials scheduled for the rest of the year and into 2019. “I’ve had special meetings with high-level officials from Smithfield,” Dixon said. “And they said they will not settle.”

 

 

agriculture

BREAKING: Billy Houston charged in hog lagoon testing case


The State Bureau of Investigation has charged Billy Houston of Duplin County with 28 counts of Obtaining Property by False Pretense for allegedly falsifying sampling results from hog lagoons.

Houston, 61, turned himself into the Duplin County magistrate’s office in Kenansville, according to the SBI. He was released on $140,000 unsecured bond, which does not require an upfront payment.

Obtaining Property by False Pretense for goods or services valued at less than $100,000 is a Class H felony. That is a low-level offense that can carry a punishment of probation or less than a year in jail.

Houston is scheduled to appear in Duplin County District Court Friday at 9:30 a.m.

As Policy Watch reported last month, Houston was a 35-year veteran of the Duplin County Soil and Water District who moonlighted as a private consultant for hog farms. It was in that side role — not as a county employee — that he supposedly visited 35 farms and sampled 55 lagoons in a single day.

The results of that sampling raised red flags at the Department of Agriculture laboratories because the levels of phosphorus, nitrogen and metals were similar across the lagoons.

“He was doing things he shouldn’t have been doing,” Franklin O. Williams, a Duplin County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor told state agriculture officials earlier this month. “He was cutting corners and being lazy.”

 

 

agriculture, immigration, News

More bad news for immigrant workers

While members of Congress seek to make the H-2A program cheaper and easier for employers by rolling-back worker protections, the US Department of Labor  continues to kick bad-actor employers out of the program. This week the USDOL’s Wage and Hour office in Raleigh announced that they had debarred two farm labor contractors from the H-2A guestworker programThis is just the latest in a series of such announcements, which underscores the flaws in the H-2A program.

The H-2A program allows employers to bring in foreign guestworkers to work in agriculture for up to 10 months.  By statute, H-2A visas are only supposed to be issued when importing foreign labor will not have an adverse effect on the wages and working conditions of the local workers doing the same kind of work.  To that end, DOL has passed regulations which govern the test of the local labor market which employers must first do before being permitted to bring in visa workers.

Additional regulations govern how workers – both H-2A visa workers and U.S. workers – are treated on the job, including setting a minimum wage, a minimum hours guarantee, the requirement that employers provide free housing which meets minimum standards and that employers reimburse the foreign visa workers for their inbound transportation costs and the expense of obtaining their visa.   The reimbursement requirement is important because visa workers usually arrive in the U.S. to begin working with significant debt, making it difficult for them to afford basic necessities, unlikely to complain about dangerous or illegal working conditions, and vulnerable to human trafficking as discussed in several publications (Close to Slavery, No Way to Treat a Guest) and articles (The New American Slavery: Invited to the U.S., Foreign Workers Find a Nightmare; “All You Americans Are Fired”).

This week’s announcement from the Raleigh USDOL office comes on the heels of similar announcements in April and May.  Worldwide Staffing, LLC, another H-2A Labor Contractor, was debarred by USDOL in April for  failing to reimburse employees for inbound expenses, owing wages,  failing  to provide adequate cooking facilities and overcharging for meals.  In May, USDOL announced they had debarred Marisa Garcia-Pineda, an H-2A labor contractor, who owed $195,735 in backwages, had charged illegal recruitment fees, and failed to reimburse the workers, among other violations.  That is all just from the last few months and there will be more this year.  Kudos to USDOL, but these actions represent a very small fraction of the problem because they can only debar employers from the H-2A program in the most extreme cases.

Despite the well-documented history of abuse of workers in the H-2A program, efforts in Congress to roll-back worker protections are ongoing.  Representative Goodlatte’s terrible Agricultural Guestworker Act was part of more comprehensive immigration legislation that was recently voted down in the House, but apparently Speaker Ryan has promised to address farm-labor legislation this summer.  In addition, the Trump Administration is expected to introduce new proposed rules for the H-2A program which would make it cheaper and more appealing to agricultural employers while undermining the basic protections for workers.

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