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MASTERSON ONLINE: Jury awards millions

05 May 2018 8:03 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

MASTERSON ONLINE: Jury awards millions

By Mike Masterson

Posted: May 5, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.


Perhaps you read last week about a North Carolina jury awarding $50.7 million to long-suffering residents living around an enormous facility known as Kinlaw Farm. It is a large-scale hog factory in Bladen County that contracts with pork producer Murphy-Brown LLC to raise about 15,000 hogs.


Murphy-Brown is a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods Inc., the Chinese-owned global Hogzilla of producing most things pork worldwide.


Here in Arkansas, Brazilian behemoth JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, supports and supplies the controversial C&H Hog Farms at little Mount Judea, located deep in the watershed of our Buffalo National River.


A jury sympathized with those living near the Kinlaw factory who had sued over the company’s questionable waste-management practices, such as storing enormous amounts of raw waste in open-air lagoons behind hog pens, then liquefying and spraying the toxic and foul-smelling stuff onto nearby fields.


A news story by investigative reporter Erica Hellerstein of Indy Week newspaper in Raleigh, N.C., told of the untenable situation for the 10 successful plaintiffs who were awarded more than $5 million each in damages. And this case was just the first of 26 similar lawsuits filed by others against the pork producers.


Among other issues with Kinlaw, Hellerstein reported, the plaintiffs complained of odors and mist from the spray invading their property, “that the hogs attract swarms of flies, buzzards and gnats; that boxes filled with rotting dead hogs produce an especially pungent stink; and that the stench has limited their ability to go outside.”


Michelle Nowlin, a prominent environmental attorney from Duke University, told Hellerstein the verdict was “a significant victory for the community members who live next to these factory feedlots. They have suffered indescribable insults, not just from the immediate impacts of the feedlots themselves, but also from decades of government failure to come to their aid. Litigation was their last chance for justice, and this verdict and award will help them move forward.”


“This verdict proves once and for all that ‘cheap meat’ is a myth,” the lawyer continued. “Someone pays the price of production, and for far too long, that burden has been on the rural communities that are home to North Carolina’s factory farms.”

Nowlin said she hoped the landmark decision would force the industry to modernize its waste treatment “to the benefit of rural communities, the environment, and the farmers themselves.”


The North Carolina Pork Council wasn’t immediately available for comment. A statement from Smithfield said it would appeal the decision adding, “We believe the outcome would have been different if the court had allowed the jury to (1) visit the plaintiffs’ properties and the Kinlaw farm and (2) hear additional vital evidence, especially the results of our expert’s odor-monitoring tests. These lawsuits are an outrageous attack on animal agriculture, rural North Carolina and thousands of independent family farmers who own and operate contract farms. These farmers are apparently not safe from attack even if they fully comply with all federal, state and local laws and regulations. The lawsuits are a serious threat to a major industry, to North Carolina’s entire economy and to the jobs and livelihoods of tens of thousands of North Carolinians.”


We will hide and watch how this all plays out. As round one is complete with so many millions awarded to ordinary people (and 25 cases yet to be heard), the folks at Smithfield Foods have been put on notice in North Carolina.


But there’s also a legal twist. That state’s legislators created a law that limits the maximum payout to $250,000 for punitive damages in such civil cases. Interesting to me that in Arkansas, civil payout limitations on punitive damages also have been proposed as a constitutional amendment to be put before voters in November.


Meanwhile, here at home, attorneys for C&H, and those opposing its location, attended a hearing with the state’s Pollution Control and Ecology Commission’s administrative law judge Charles Moulton last week. There, they wrangled over the denial of that factory’s application for a revised Regulation 5 operating permit.


And wrangle they did, mired in technical jargon and arcane arguments over various aspects of regulations affecting the hog factory and whether permits had expired yet supposedly remain in effect, but not really, but really … I daresay trying to explain all the legalesy yada yada (my term) in comprehensible English would put most readers sound asleep.


Suffice to say my understanding is that the hearing revolved around questions over a permit necessary for the factory to continue operating, which it has been doing on its expired original permit (that particular permit program now canceled) since January, pending an appeal to be heard in August.


And it’s a safe bet that whatever decision is reached even then will be appealed. And so it goes and goes in the national river’s watershed that USA Today readers named our state’s greatest attraction.


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