How Smelly Is Too Smelly? What We Learned From the First Two Days of the Murphy-Brown Hog Nuisance Trial. | News
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Thursday, April 5, 2018

How Smelly Is Too Smelly? What We Learned From the First Two Days of the Murphy-Brown Hog Nuisance Trial.

Posted by on Thu, Apr 5, 2018 at 9:41 AM

The showdown between an eastern North Carolina hog farm and its neighbors continued Wednesday in the second day (not including a day dedicated to jury selection) of a trial about the odors and nuisance allegedly caused by industrial hog operations. The outcome of the trial could force the world's largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods subsidiary Murphy-Brown LLC, to change the way it manages its hog waste—an issue that has been a point of contention for the communities surrounding Murphy-Brown-operated hog farms for decades.

At its core, the trial is about pig poop. Plaintiffs suing the food giant argue that the farms' method of disposing of hog waste has produced unbearable stenches. That waste-management system, which is common in large-scale hog farms in North Carolina, functions by storing excess pig excrement in open-air lagoons behind hog sheds and then liquifying and spraying the remaining waste onto nearby fields.

The result is smelly. (We know that because we have been to some of the homes of the plaintiffs suing Smithfield; you can read our series about the lawsuits and commercial hog farming here.)

But just how smelly is at issue in this case. In opening statements, attorneys for Smithfield and the cohort of neighbors suing the company disagreed over what is more or less the central question: How unbearable are the smells produced at Smithfield-operated hog farms, and should those farms’ neighbors be financially compensated for the alleged nuisance the farms create?

The neighbors say yes; Smithfield says no.

What happens in this trial could determine the outcome of twenty-five additional lawsuits filed by neighbors in 2014 against Murphy-Brown. The case currently being heard in court is the first of those lawsuits, which were split into eight parts by the judge presiding over the case. The first trial involves ten people who live near Kinlaw Farm, a large-scale hog operation in Bladen County that contracts with Murphy-Brown to raise its hogs.

The plaintiffs argue that the odors produced at Kinlaw have interfered with their health and quality of life and that the company should be forced to clean up the (literal) mess produced by thousands of hogs in confinement. Pigs produce five times as much waste as humans, and Murphy-Brown farms in North Carolina have long relied on the lagoon-to-sprayfield system to manage that waste. Attorneys for the plaintiffs say that the multibillion-dollar company has the financial resources to introduce alternative technologies to reduce the smell, such as covering the lagoons and eliminating spraying, but has done nothing.

"Smithfield has the technology and the money to eliminate the odor," said Mike Kaeske, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. "Smithfield has chosen to do nothing."

An attorney for Smithfield, meanwhile, said the lawsuits are motivated by "out-of-town people with an agenda." (Industry trade groups and politicians, too, have characterized the litigation as an assault by avaricious attorneys on hardworking family farmers.) He also said that jurors shouldn't be asked to evaluate alternative waste-management technologies on other farms or broader issues related to the state's other Murphy-Brown operated farms. Instead, he argued, jurors should focus exclusively on the farm involved in this particular trial, Kinlaw, and whether or not it caused a nuisance to its neighbors.

"Why is it that they want to talk about all that other stuff but not about what his lawsuit is about?" He asked.

Smithfield's attorney used the same strategy yesterday during the pre-recorded cross-examinations of the first expert witness in the case, Steve Wing, an epidemiologist at UNC-Chapel Hill who spent years studying the public health impacts of industrial hog operations in Eastern North Carolina on its neighbors. Wing passed away from cancer in 2016, and his testimony was presented in a video in the courtroom, which the judge instructed jurors to give as much weight to as an in-person court testimony.

During his testimony, Wing discussed his research on communities living near hog farms, which included people who lived near Smithfield hog operations. Wing's research showed a correlation between air pollution from hog farms and higher rates of nausea, increases in blood pressure, respiratory issues such as wheezing and increased asthma symptoms for children, and overall diminished quality of life for people living nearby.

"If people aren't able to use their property, then it's a threat to public health," Wing said. He also stressed that Smithfield and others in the industry had the ability to learn about his research and other studies published about the impacts of industrial hog farms. "It's out there and available for them to see."

During cross-examination, an attorney for Smithfield made the point that Wing's research was not focused exclusively on Kinlaw Farms but rather the communities surrounding a range of eastern North Carolina hog farms (for example, Wing did not test the homes of the plaintiffs involved in this particular case and he didn't conduct air quality testing on Kinlaw Farm). The attorney also repeatedly asked if Wing's research distinguished between Murphy-Brown farms and other farms, which it did not.

Wing rejected the notion that those issues would somehow disqualify the relevance of his research, arguing that public health researchers often study communities affected by certain exposures and can draw conclusions about their impacts without studying every person exposed. Take, for example, lead cigarettes or lead exposure. There is now a large body of research documenting the lifelong, harmful effects of cigarette smoking and lead exposure. Researchers don't have to study every child exposed to lead or the lungs of every person who has ever smoked to draw the conclusion that those exposures are harmful.

As for his study's focus on neighborhoods affected by industrial hog operations rather than specific Murphy-Brown-operated farms, Wing made an analogy to researchers studying cigarette smoking. If he were studying the impacts of cigarette smoking, he explained, he would not need to study people who smoke Marlboros versus other brands of cigarettes.

"The impacts don't depend on separating out each brand because the constituents are similar enough," he said. "I don't think we could have done our research if we proposed only to study Murphy-Brown facilities."

Smithfield's attorney also said that some of the people Wing studied were assisted by community organizers adverse to the commercial hog farming industry and asked why they did not test every home in every neighborhood.

"We did not have every home, which is universal in research done in epidemiology," Wing responded. (Occasionally, it sounded like he was slowly and painstakingly explaining basic concepts of health research to a high schooler.)

Today, the trial will feature the testimony of a second witness, Shane Rogers, an expert in environmental engineering and animal waste management, whose tests have found that North Carolina hog farms literally sprayed liquified hog feces on their neighbors’ houses.

As the INDY reported last year:

To test for the presence of pig-manure DNA, Rogers and his team collected thirty-one samples from the outside walls of the homes and submitted them for DNA testing; fourteen of seventeen homes tested positive for Pig2bac. Additionally, all six of the dust samples they collected from the air "contained tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of hog feces DNA particles," Rogers wrote. "... Considering the facts, it is far more likely than not that hog feces also gets inside the clients' homes where they live and where they eat."

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