What do you think of when you hear the word nuisance? Flies at a picnic, cars driving below the speed limit, wrong number phone calls in the middle of the night? How about fecal matter from hogs on the exterior walls of your home? Odors so foul you are unable to sit on your porch or otherwise enjoy your property? Health impacts suffered by you or your family from breathing air saturated with ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and other pollutants?
In overriding Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of House Bill 467, the North Carolina General Assembly has decided North Carolinians should not have the right to recover compensation for damages resulting from these types of “nuisances” other than amounts directly associated with lost property values. How many people does this affect? The Environmental Working Group estimates 270,000 people live within a half-mile of a hog farm in the state. This means 270,000 people living next door to factory farms have been stripped of their right to use the court system to seek compensation for negative health impacts, pain and suffering, diminished quality of life or lost income.
What motivated the General Assembly to do such a thing? In over two dozen lawsuits currently pending before a federal court, plaintiffs are alleging that nearby factory farms are causing overwhelming odors, health impacts and diminished property values, and they’re seeking compensation. The industry likely feels threatened by the potential for a jury to agree with them.
So what is Big Pork to do? Engage its bought-and-paid-for legislature to enact limits on these types of lawsuits, of course. The bill as originally proposed would have applied retroactively to suits that have already been filed. While an amendment eventually exempted the existing suits from the bill, this new law will minimize the effectiveness of these sorts of claims in the future.
The 26 federal lawsuits have been filed against America’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, which is now owned by the Chinese company WH Group and operated by its subsidiary Murphy-Brown. Essentially, North Carolina’s elected officials are doing the bidding of a Chinese-owned company at the expense of the health and quality of life of North Carolinians. And that stinks. Even WH Group recognizes the ugliness of this narrative and has sought to forbid plaintiffs from discussing WH Group’s Chinese ownership, the country of China, or the exporting of pork to China in court.
It’s no secret that the agriculture sector spends lavishly to elect sympathetic politicians, and this issue is a perfect example. One needs only to look at campaign contributions for confirmation. According to The National Institute on Money in State Politics, the four original sponsors of HB 467 have throughout their time in office raised $417,900 from Big Ag—including $45,750 from the North Carolina Farm Bureau and $30,000 from the NC Pork Council. The North Carolina Farm Bureau has given $458,000 to the 2017 legislature; the North Carolina Pork Council has given $235,200.
In voting for the bill and then voting to override Governor Cooper’s veto, a majority of North Carolina General Assembly members have sent a clear message that their priority is to protect industrialized agriculture and not the North Carolinians who suffer every day from exposure to polluting factory farms and who are unable to enjoy their property.
What can we do?
Corporate influence in our political system is one of the biggest threats to our health, environment, food and water. This bill becoming law certainly represents a setback. But while the industry may have won this battle they haven’t won the war. By inspiring enough people—in North Carolina and across the country—to stand together to shift the balance of power we can fix our broken democracy and get corporate influence out of our political system.