agriculture, Environment

Jury awards plaintiffs $420,000 as Smithfield loses fifth hog nuisance trial

Lendora Farland is nicknamed “Sunshine,” but her testimony last month in federal court illustrated the misery her family has endured, caused, she said, by the stench and flies from a nearby industrialized hog farm in Duplin County.

“The smell is like when a baby has a fever and diarrhea,” Farland, who is a certified nursing assistant, testified. “And when I’m cooking dinner — pork chops, I like them, yes I do — I don’t want to eat with that smell.”

Farland’s affection for pork chops drove home the point that the plaintiffs in all of the hog nuisance cases don’t think Murphy-Brown, which owns the pigs, should go out of business, But the billion-dollar company should change how disposes of the millions of gallons of hog feces and urine. In each case, plaintiffs’ attorneys have argued that Murphy-Brown and its parent company, Smithfield, could choose to eliminate the antiquated waste lagoon and sprayfield system, but to avoid denting their corporate profit margins, have not.

On Friday, a jury awarded 10 plaintiffs a total of $420,000 in compensatory and punitive damages in a hog nuisance trial against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.

Punitive damages are awarded when a jury determines a defendant “committed fraud, or acted with malice or engaged in willful or wanton conduct.”Murphy-Brown has lost all five of the nuisance cases in federal district court, with gross damages totaling $550.5 million. Because of a state cap on punitive awards, the net payout is $97.2 million.

Smithfield hasn’t paid these damages, pending the company’s appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

However, in another setback for the company, Senior District Court Judge Earl Britt denied Murphy-Brown’s request for a new trial in the third case, in which the jury awarded six plaintiffs an historic $475 million. (Britt reduced the amount to $94.5 million.) Britt also denied two other motions related to that case: One filed by Murphy-Brown to erase the punitive damages, and a second filed by the plaintiff’s attorneys to lift the cap on punitive damages, on constitutional grounds. 

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While the jury deliberated, 100 miles to the southeast, the air in Warsaw stunk. The water was clammy, and carried the acrid odor from nearby swine farms, waste lagoons and sprayfields, depositing it outside the REACH office on Ward’s Bridge Road.

Members of the community group REACH (Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help) and the Duke University Law and Policy Clinic were leading a bus tour of Duplin County affected by industrialized livestock operations: Not just hogs, but also poultry and cattle. Many of those on the tour, primarily environmental law students, had never witnessed, up close, anyway, enormous spray guns spewing geysers of waste onto fields — and the cows grazing on them.

(The former head of the EPA’s environmental justice program, Mustafa Santiago Ali was also on the tour, but he is well-acquainted with the issue.)

Until Friday, many had not seen a lagoon filled nearly to its berm. Many had not seen homes so close — a half-mile or less — to these enormous operations.

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Commentary, Environment

Expert: The truth about farting cows and the policies that actually put hamburger at risk

You’ve probably heard something in the news of late about the proposed Green New Deal and how its proponents supposedly want to end the production of beef. North Carolina’s tea partying congressman Mark Meadows made such a claim recently. As climate expert Dr. Joe Romm, pointed out over the weekend in a column entitled “Republicans are the real threat to hamburgers, not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” however, the truth about what the Green New Deal proposes and the policies that actually put beef production at risk are a little different.

After pointing out that the original mention of “farting cows” come from a draft FAQ section associated with the proposal that was later deleted, Romm explains:

“The actual resolution says only that the goal of slashing carbon pollution over the next decade should be achieved by “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.”

Romm then goes on to point out that Ocasio-Cortez was clearly right when she said that “We gotta address factory farming. Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” He than says this:

“Reducing beef consumption isn’t just good for your health, it’s needed to preserve a livable climate. The fact that per capita red meat consumption has been on the decline in this country in recent decades suggests Americans understand one if not both of those facts.

But the GOP effort to block any serious discussion or legislation to address climate change has never been based on facts.

After all, if Republican leaders and President Donald Trump actually accepted climate science, they would understand that their do-nothing strategy is the greatest imaginable threat to every single type of food production, including livestock.

Because grazing cattle require so much arable land and fresh water, cows are among the biggest victims of any extended drought — and climate change is already driving a major increase in the duration and intensity of droughts in this country and around the world.

Higher temperatures from global warming cause greater evaporation, drying up reservoirs and parching the land. At the same time, climatic shifts in precipitation are causing longer dry spells in the Great Plains and Southwest, like the epic multi-year drought California endured earlier in the decade.

Together, these factors turn ordinary droughts into mega-droughts, which result in less water for people and cattle — and for the crops we both feed on. In the early part of this decade, Texas was in the middle of its worst drought in recorded history, causing epic water shortages and cutting down crops like hay and corn that serve as cattle feed.”

In other words, as Romm concludes, large-scale cattle farming isn’t going to survive in a world that features mega-droughts:

“To get to the more manageable ‘lower emissions’ scenario, America and the world must far exceed the emissions reduction goals agreed to in Paris in December 2015. In short, we need something approximating a Green New Deal.

House Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee mockingly tweeted that they need to eat hamburgers now before they disappear.

Thanks to their blinkered denial of the climate crisis, that may be more prescient than they realize.”

Click here to read Romm’s entire article.

Education

Superintendent Mark Johnson has released a spending plan for his #NC2030 priorities

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

Last month, State Superintendent Mark Johnson released a lengthy list of education priorities he contends will ensure North Carolina’s public schools are the best for teachers and students by 2030.

The list included pay increases for teachers (at least 5 percent pay raises this year), the elimination of high-stakes testing, the recruitment of the best and brightest teachers and more flexibility for school districts, among others.

Johnson didn’t know how much his plan called #NC2030 would cost when he unveiled it during a big dinner and reception at the Raleigh Convention Center.

But he has quietly released a proposed spending plan for the 2019-21 fiscal biennium at  https://www.ncsuperintendent.com/budget.

The plan would cost more than $1 billion the first year and nearly $1.5 billion in the second year.

Johnson’s spending recommendations have been sent to the General Assembly.

News

Groups press governor to transfer transgender woman from men’s prison

Activists, human rights groups and LGBTQ community members gathered outside Gov. Roy Cooper’s office Friday morning to demand the transfer of a transgender woman from a men’s prison in Harnett County.

Kanautica Zayre-Brown has been in solitary confinement since Saturday, in the aftermath of her case getting wider public attention.

This week the ACLU of North Carolina sent a letter to the Department of Public Safety threatening to sue if a resolution to Zayre-Brown’s

case is not reached by the end of this month.

Sneha Shah, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, was on hand as a group met outside the governor’s office Monday morning.

She said those responsible for Zayre-Brown’s confinement must transfer her to a women’s facility and give her the medical treatment she needs. If not, she said, “we will see them in court.”

The governor did not meet with the group, which was not allowed to enter the building. Jeremy Collins, Cooper’s director of community engagement, met with them and received their letter, which was signed by more than 400 people and organizations.

Jeremy Collins, director of engagement for Gov. Roy Cooper, met with activists outside the governor’s office Friday.

Collins told the group Cooper is working with Erik Hooks, Secretary of the Department of Public Safety, to resolve Zayre-Brown’s case and make sure similar cases don’t arise in the future.

“Kanautica is a North Carolinian,” Collins told the group. “She’s a family member, a community member. She’s a sister – a family member to all of us. We take that seriously. We want her safety.”

Collins said he wanted the group to know their voices are being heard by the governor on his issue.

“Your protest, your signs, your strident persistence is necessary,” Collins said. “I’m glad you’re here.”

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Commentary, Education, Legislature, NC Budget and Tax Center, News

The week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch

1. Gov. Cooper wants a $3.9 billion education bond, 9 percent pay raises for teachers

Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday proposed a robust $3.9 billion education bond for school construction and renovation projects.

He also called for an average nine percent pay raise for teachers over the next two years to put North Carolina on a path to become the best state in the Southeast for teacher pay in four years.

No teacher would receive less than a three percent raise in either of the next two years, under Cooper’s plan.

“North Carolina ranks 37th in teacher pay, and that’s not good enough,” Cooper said in a statement. “We need to put our schools first and that starts with paying teachers and principals better and treating them like the professionals they are.” [Read more…]

** Bonus read: Gov. Cooper’s environmental budget adds $6 million to tackle emerging contaminants
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2. How a high school basketball controversy in Charlotte encapsulates inequality in North Carolina schools

When a West Charlotte High basketball player excoriated the “B.S.” that grifted a home court playoff game from his school this week, his palpable anger made sense on many levels, just one of them actually involving sports.

The school’s gym – capacity 400 – wasn’t big enough to house West Charlotte’s hotly-anticipated match-up Tuesday with cross-town rival, Ardrey Kell High, The Charlotte Observer reported this week. So his team’s well-earned spoils, a home date in the “Lion’s den” – as locals call it – decamped and moved eight miles northeast to a neutral high school with 650 more seats.

Put aside the slight to West Charlotte’s basketball team, for a moment. Snatching home court advantage in a playoff game stings – though West Charlotte won the game anyway – but, in this week’s report, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake saw the controversy absent the fog of competition.

In a very limited sense, it’s a sports story. But in a broader sense, it’s a microcosm, a symptom of an illness in North Carolina. It’s a weary story, a story about haves and have-nots, Leake explained, writ small in high school basketball melodrama.

“We are more segregated today than we’ve ever been,” Leake sagely told The Observer reporter. “There’s a white system and a Black system.” [Read more…]

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3. RDU officials side with mining interests in clash over Umstead quarry

Umstead State Park in winter is at its least beautiful, but in no way is it ugly. Within the park’s palette of gray and rust appear plush pelts of moss in iridescent green and coarse crowns of lichens in dusty mint. Outcrops of ancient rocks, composed of minerals such as feldspar and quartz, are strewn across the forest floor like scattered teeth.

Failing to observe property lines, the park’s outcrops extend east and west of the park to 250 acres owned by the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority. Wake Stone, which has operated a quarry nearby for more than 35 years, wants the rock. The Airport Authority needs the money.

Under a controversial agreement, the Airport Authority board has leased 105 acres, known as the “Odd Fellows tract,” to Wake Stone, which, provided the test borings prove fruitful, would timber it. Then on 45 of the acres, the company would blast a pit 40 stories deep to extract the minerals, crush them and sell the material for road-building and other uses. While Wake Stone has agreed to invest millions of dollars in adjacent natural areas and mountain bike trails, the mining could continue for 25 years or more.

The lease has raised concerns about transparency and inclusiveness of the Airport Authority board, whose eight members include several real estate developers and construction company owners. The board is appointed by the Durham City Council, Durham County Commission, Raleigh City Council and Wake County Commission, but three of those four elected bodies say they were not consulted on the deal. [Read more…]

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4. Educators seethe at N.C. lawmakers’ plan to arm, deputize teachers

Two new bills filed by state lawmakers take the heated debate over gun rights and safety to one of its most controversial battlegrounds: the classroom.

House Bill 216 – The School Self-Defense Act – would make it legal for teachers and staff members to carry concealed handguns on school grounds “to respond to acts of violence or imminent threats of violence.”

Senate Bill 192 – The School Security Act of 2019 – would incentivize teachers to carry concealed weapons, provide training and pay raises for teachers who undergo law enforcement training, and make them sworn law enforcement officers too.

The House bill’s primary sponsors are Reps. Larry Pittman (R-Cabarrus) and Michael Speciale (R-Craven). The Senate bill’s primary sponsors are Senators Jerry Tillman (R-Guilford and Randolph), Ralph Hise and Warren Daniel. Hise and Daniel are Republicans from western North Carolina.[Read more…]

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5. The Equal Rights Amendment makes a long overdue comeback

There’s no denying that the American public policy environment is measurably more progressive in the aftermath of last November’s election. In Washington, congressional leaders of both parties are pushing back against President Trump’s attempt to declare a national emergency, and the U.S. House is seriously discussing proposals for a “Green New Deal” and a massive overhaul of federal ethics and voting rights laws.

Meanwhile, here in North Carolina, despite conservative majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, progressive proposals are percolating into public view at a much faster pace than in recent years. In the early days of the 2019 session, lawmakers have introduced legislation to close the state’s Medicaid gap, curb gun violence, restore master’s degree pay for teachers, raise the minimum wage, reinstate the state Earned Income Tax Credit, expand paid family and medical leave and legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

And while no one expects an easy path onto the statute books for any of these bills right away, it is possible to envision such a path in the foreseeable future – especially for the state-level proposals, given that each of them has been around for a good while and has already won approval in numerous jurisdictions. [Read more…]

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6. Charlotte Learning Academy leader “seeing red” over comment comparing graduates’ video to ‘dirt sandwich’

Charlotte Learning Academy leaders left Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting visibly shaken and “seeing red” over a comment made by Steven Walker, vice chairman of the Charter School Advisory Board, who awkwardly compared ­­videos from former students of the struggling charter school to a marketing strategy that can make a “dirt sandwich” look good.

“I’m not trying to compare the school to a dirt sandwich or anything like that but what I’m saying is that if you market something you can make it look real good,” Walker said.

The Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) has recommended that Charlotte Learning Academy’s (CLA) charter not be renewed due to poor academic performance. The school serves mostly at-risk, economically disadvantaged students in grades 6-12 who find it difficult to succeed in a traditional school setting.[Read more…]

** Bonus read: State Board of Education votes to close Charlotte Learning Academy
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7. Upcoming event:

North Carolina’s death penalty: On life support? Join us Tuesday (March 12) at noon for our next Crucial Conversation

Here’s something you might not know: North Carolina hasn’t executed a prisoner since 2006, but the state – home to a boom in capital murder trials during the 1990s – houses the country’s sixth largest “death row” population.

That’s one of a series of sobering details in “Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row,” a report published in 2018 by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, the state’s leading advocacy organization on capital punishment.

Learn more and register today for this special event.