Blankets of black flies spawned by a nearby industrial hog farm's uncovered cesspools can be so thick, Elvis Williams told jurors Tuesday, he built a screened front porch for his mobile home so that he could continue grilling dinners as he's loved doing for decades.
The 60-year-old former textile worker testified in one of numerous federal lawsuits that have rattled agribusiness in the country's No. 2 hog-growing state. Farm interests have turned to state legislators to erect new protections for the politically influential pork industry.
Of about two dozen lawsuits filed years ago by more than 500 eastern North Carolina neighbors against Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, Williams' is the second to reach jurors.
The lawsuits contend that Smithfield, which dictates the conditions under which farmers must raise its hogs, has resisted changing its concentrated animal husbandry methods because they cost less than less-smelly methods the company already uses in other states.
Smithfield Foods is owned by Hong Kong-headquartered WH Group, which generated $22 billion in revenues last year.
Four blocks away from the federal courthouse where Williams testified, a state House committee on Tuesday approved legislation sharply limiting neighbors from punishing farm operations for causing severe nuisances. The proposed law would all but block other neighbors from suing industrial-scale livestock operations in the future.
Lawmakers said their action was spurred by the $51 million in penalties a jury in the first trial ordered Smithfield Foods to pay to neighbors who spent decades tolerating horrible smells and other nuisances. The fine was cut to about $3 million because North Carolina law limits punitive damages meant to punish misdeeds. Smithfield, its related lobbying groups and rural advocates described the jury's decision as a threat to agribusiness in North Carolina.
Landowners in the state's eastern farm belt turned to raising hogs or turkeys after the decline of previously profitable tobacco farms. The lawsuits now place those enterprises in doubt, said Joseph Scott, mayor of Mount Olive, a town of 3,600 people located in the three-county region that makes up the United States' heaviest concentration of industrialized hog lots.
"We are talking about the livelihoods of men and women," said Scott, whose town has one-third of its residents living in poverty. "We have nowhere to go."
Williams and other neighbors say they don't want to put livestock operations out of business, but they shouldn't have to put up with the nuisances. They say Smithfield could and should eliminate those nuisances, even if it costs them more to do so.
Williams said he bought the land for his home nearly 30 years ago, when the nearby landowner already raised hogs but before it expanded to its current size of up to 4,700 animals.
The worst thing about the operation, he said, is the speeding trucks that slam on their air brakes at 5 a.m. as they arrive to empty a steel container containing hogs that died in their pens the day before. Then it's the boom of steel on steel as the crate slams against the truck's hopper, followed by another boom when the empty container hits the ground again, Williams said.
"It's very annoying. I can't go back to sleep."
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