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North Carolina Hog Farms Spray Manure Around Black Communities; Residents Fight Back

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In eastern North Carolina, residents are battling with one of the state’s largest industries: hog farms. Last week, North Carolina lawmakers passed House Bill 467, which limits the damages that residents could collect against hog farms. The billion-dollar industry is primarily clustered in the eastern part of the state, where hog farms collect billions of gallons of untreated pig feces and urine in what are essentially cesspools, then dispose of the waste by spraying it into the air. Residents living in the area of the spray complain of adverse health effects and odor so bad that it limits their ability to be outdoors. For more, we speak with Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, and Will Hendrick, staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance and manager of the organization’s North Carolina Pure Farms, Pure Waters campaign.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re broadcasting today from Tampa, Florida, from Tampa PBS, WEDU. I’m Amy Goodman.

We close today’s show with a look at the battle between residents of eastern North Carolina and one of the state’s largest industries: hog farms. Last week, the North Carolina lawmakers passed House Bill 467, which limits the damages that residents can collect against hog farms. The billion-dollar industry is primarily clustered in the eastern part of North Carolina, where hog farms collect billions of gallons of untreated pig feces and urine in what are essentially cesspools, then dispose of the waste by spraying it into the air.

In an investigation into the industry, filmmaker Mark Devries used drones to capture aerial footage of several massive facilities that supply pigs for Smithfield Foods. He spoke with Steve Wing, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Public Health, who described what happens in the facilities.

STEVE WING: The waste falls through the floors. It’s flushed out into an open pit, like a cesspool. It’s easy for a big hog operation to have as much waste as a medium-sized city. Of course, the pit will fill up, so it has to be emptied. And they’re emptied by spraying the liquid waste.

MARK DEVRIES: Yes, you heard that right.

STEVE WING: If you’re familiar with a garden sprayer, they’re gigantic versions of that. So they’re making droplets and fine mists out of this liquid waste. And that can drift downwind into the neighboring communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Residents living in the area of the spray complain of odor so bad it limits their ability to be outdoors, and adverse health effects. House Bill 467, or the Agriculture and Forestry Nuisance Remedies bill, was introduced by Republican State Representative Jimmy Dixon, a longtime farmer, who has received campaign contributions from the hog industry. Speaking at a hearing about the legislation, Dixon said, quote, "These claims are at best enormous exaggerations and at worst outright lies. Is there some odor? Yes. But I would like you to close your eyes and imagine how ham and sausage and eggs and fried chicken smell," he said. The legislation comes as a class action suit brought by nearly 500 primarily African-American residents of eastern North Carolina seek financial compensation from Murphy-Brown, the state’s largest hog producer. The lawsuits have now moved to federal court.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. And we’re joined by Will Hendrick, staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance and manager of the organization’s North Carolina Pure Farms, Pure Waters campaign.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Naeema. Can you tell us where you live and what you’re dealing with today?

NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: Yes, OK. I live in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, which is in the eastern part of the state. But I am in the northeastern part of the state. I live away from where these animals are, but I work with communities that’s living with these animals, and I’ve been working with these communities since 1999. And so I’m constantly going into the communities where these animals are, and—you know, and I smell what the people living there are smelling. I see the spraying going on. I see the hog houses and the open-air lagoons that’s just sitting out there. As you travel through those communities, you can’t help but see these houses that the animals are kept in, as well as the lagoon and the spray fields.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to turn to another clip from Mark Devries’ video. Here he speaks with Elsie Herring, a resident of Wallace, North Carolina. She’s part of the complaint filed with the EPA seeking more protections for neighbors of hog farm operations.

ELSIE HERRING: This is where they spray animal waste on us. This is about eight feet from my mother’s house.

MARK DEVRIES: What is it like when the mist is spraying?

ELSIE HERRING: It’s like you think it’s raining.

MARK DEVRIES: Really?

ELSIE HERRING: You think it’s raining. We don’t open the doors up or the windows, but the odor still comes in. It takes your breath away. Then you start gagging. You get headaches.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to turn to former pig factory farm owner Don Webb.

DON WEBB: I shut my hog operation down, and I got out of it. And I couldn’t—I just couldn’t do another person that way, to make them smell that. It is a cesspool that you put feces and urine in, a hole in the ground that you dump toxic waste in. And I’ve seen dead hogs in them and stuff like that. I’ve seen it. I’ve talked to the people. I’ve seen the little children that say, "Mom and daddy, why do we got to smell this stuff?" You get stories like "I can’t hang my clothes out. Feces and urine odor comes by and attaches itself to your clothes." And then people will say, "We’re scared to invite neighbors."

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s former pig factory farmer Don Webb, who closed his farm. Naeema, explain exactly what is in the spray that people are inhaling and getting on their clothes, the residents in east North Carolina?

NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: OK, so the spray is the animal waste that comes out of the—the hogs are kept in tin metal housing. And they have slats in the floor where whatever—whenever they go to the bathroom or abort baby piglets or whatever happens with them, it falls through the slats in the floor, and it’s piped out. There are pipes running underneath the ground. And the waste is piped out into the open-air lagoon. And there are all kinds of chemicals. And this urine and fecal matter produces methane, ammonia gases, and so you can smell it. And what people say, it smells like rotten eggs, sometimes rotten collard greens or—it’s just a terrible smell. And they have been forced off of their wells, because they were seeing remnants of the waste in their well waters by the coloring and the odors coming out of their well water.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Will Hendrick, you’re an attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance. Can you describe how extensive this is, how many people are affected, and what the state Carolina Legislature House Bill 467 is all about?

WILL HENDRICK: Certainly. This bill is an attempt to protect polluters over people, to deny rights to the victims of nuisance caused by agricultural operations and to, indeed, deny equal rights to those who are disproportionately affected by those nuisance conditions. The question of the scope of agricultural operations is an important one, because the state of North Carolina, unfortunately, does not know the location—its own environmental agency does not know the location of many of the poultry operations that are in the state. Often, they are collocated with the hog operations we’ve been discussing.

As you alluded to, the hog operations are predominantly concentrated in low-income and minority communities, predominantly in southeastern North Carolina. And the residents near these facilities experience significant impacts to their quality of life, many of which Naeema discussed. But it is important to note that this bill would reduce remedies, would reduce property rights for nuisance victims across the state, because it applies to any nuisance caused by any agricultural or forestry operation, which do span from the mountains to the coast.

AMY GOODMAN: Why isn’t this act illegal?

WILL HENDRICK: Well, there are certainly concerns regarding its legality. And ultimately, that may be tested in the courts. What we have heard from bill proponents is that they believe this law is necessary to protect small farmers from frivolous lawsuits filed by out-of-state interests seeking to bleed the industry dry. And none of those four features is accurate. First, none of the pending lawsuits are against small farmers.

NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: That’s right.

WILL HENDRICK: They’re instead against the large billion-dollar corporation that is producing this meat. Secondly, there are existing statutory protections against malicious or frivolous lawsuits filed in nuisance against agricultural operations. Third, the lawsuits are being brought by North Carolina lawyers based in Salisbury, North Carolina. And fourth and most importantly, the attempt here is not to drive this industry out of North Carolina. Agriculture has been and will continue to be an important part of our economy. However, no industry is worth the impacts on public health and the environment that we have seen in this industry. And so, the attempt here is not to bleed that industry dry, but instead to make sure that that industry is conducted, that these operations are managing waste, in a way that doesn’t harm their neighbors.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another clip from Mark Devries’s investigation into Smithfield Foods factory farms. This is Steve Wing, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Public Health.

STEVE WING: It can, I think, very correctly be called environmental racism or environmental injustice that people of color, low-income people bear the brunt of these practices.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Will Hendrick, this bill, HB 467, was passed by both houses of the North Carolina Legislature. It now goes to be signed by the new Democratic governor, Cooper. What is your understanding of what he will do?

WILL HENDRICK: Well, we are urging him to veto this legislation. Of course, that decision is his, and he has to act by this Sunday. We’re hoping that he’ll step in and be the champion of the people that he campaigned to be. We saw in the McCrory administration concerns about willingness to protect corporate interests over the people of North Carolina. And the coal ash saga was an important part of the electoral season, in the campaign dialogue. Similarly, we saw concern by North Carolina voters in response to attempts to decrease the civil rights of many North Carolinians in the HB 2 fiasco. Governor Cooper rose to power, was put into office by North Carolinians believing that he would be a champion for the little guy, that he would not kowtow to these large corporations, that he would not solely be the governor for the well-heeled, but be the governor for all Tar Heels in the Tar Heel State.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican North Carolina state Representative Jimmy Dixon is a primary sponsor of HB 467, or the Agriculture and Forestry Nuisance Remedies bill, again, which would limit damages people could collect against hog farms. Dixon is a longtime farmer, who received more than $100,000 in contributions from the pork industry over the last five years, including contributions from Bill Prestage, who served on the board of Smithfield; Wendell Murphy Jr. of Murphy Family Ventures, one of the county’s largest pork producers; and the North Carolina Pork Council. Can you talk about the significance of this and just exactly who makes up the pig manure lobby?

WILL HENDRICK: Certainly. There are an army of individuals that make up that lobby, and listing all of their names would be impossible on this segment. Suffice it to say that there are various interests working to protect the hog industry, the poultry industry, agribusiness in this state. North Carolina is the second leading producer of pork in this country, behind only Iowa. And so there is significant interest by the industry in ensuring that they can operate with minimized exposure to liability. And indeed they’ve externalized the costs of waste management. And they’re attempting here to reduce the rights of people who are going to court saying that they are harmed by the way in which waste is managed at these operations and that they have property rights recognized, gosh, since 1611, back in old England, and that they—that those rights deserve protection and that there should be remedies in courts in North Carolina when those rights are violated.

AMY GOODMAN: Naeema Muhammad, I wanted to ask you if you can talk more about the class action suit against Smithfield by those affected by the farms, and your organization also filing a Title VI complaint with the EPA. Explain what that means.

NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: OK. So, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Waterkeeper Alliance and REACH, which is Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, we joined together and filed a Title VI complaint, which is an act under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And under the Title VI, it states that governmental agencies cannot do business in a way that intentionally or unintentionally have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities. And so, in March of 2013, DEQ, which is Department of Environmental Quality—at that time, it was called the Department of Environment and Natural Resources—renewed all of those contract rules, permits, without putting any protective measures in place for communities living with these animals, even though they had been well informed of the health impacts, the environmental impacts, by the research that was done by Dr. Steve Wing, and also citizens going up, you know, talking with them. They attended the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. We have an annual summit every year, the third weekend in October. And DENR always had a representative sitting on our government listening panel. So they were in the room—

AMY GOODMAN: Naeema, we’re going to have to leave it there, as the show wraps up, but we are going to continue to follow this issue. Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, and Will Hendrick, attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance and manager of the organization’s North Carolina Pure Farms, Pure Waters campaign.

That does it for the show. I’ll be speaking tonight in Tampa, 7:30, at the Seminal Heights United Methodist Church; Thursday in Atlanta, 7:00 p.m., at the First Iconium Baptist Church; Friday at 2:00 at Carleton College in Minnesota, 6:30 at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. On Saturday, we’re in Madison, at night, we’re in Chicago. On Sunday, we’re in three cities in Michigan.

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