By John Murawski
North Carolina lawmakers put off voting Wednesday on a bill that would protect the state’s hog farmers from lawsuits filed by their neighbors over the odors and illnesses they say are caused by hog waste.
Several lawmakers on a House judiciary committee expressed reservations about the legality of the bill, while residents and activists described the stench, gases and flies emanating from hog farms near their homes.
The one-page legislation, House Bill 467, would limit the amount of money people could collect in lawsuits against agricultural operations, capping damages to a property owner’s loss of rental income. If enacted, the bill would apply to any lawsuits pending at the time the law goes into effect. Rep. Philip Lehman, a Democrat from Durham, estimated the cap would limit a typical homeowner to collecting $7,000 for inconvenience and suffering over a three-year period, the state statutory limit on collecting money damages.
“It offends me that you’re changing the rules in the middle of the game, with regards to pending legal actions,” said Lehman, a retired lawyer. “You can’t get a lawyer to look at a case for $7,000.”
That retroactive provision would ensnare 26 lawsuits pending in federal court, filed by 541 people against Murphy-Brown, a hog producing subsidiary of pork giant Smithfield Foods. The suits allege that 89 farms spray hog waste as irrigation and fertilizer, and the odor wafts across property lines, forcing neighbors to flee indoors, turn up air conditioners or burn incense.
“It’s pig poop and pee in the air blowing around,” said Allie Sheffield of Duplin County. “It corrodes paint on cars. It erodes screens in windows. It prevents going outside. Little kids haven’t had birthday parties outside forever.”