A stench in the nostrils of God

The rancid smell of hog facilities in North Carolina has led to a dirty and protracted legal battle.

You can smell the Smithfield pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina before you can see it.

When I first hit Tar Heel one morning in December of last year, the smell was ripe but somewhat bearable. Later, it was not. The plant, the largest of its kind in the world, turns thousands of dead pigs into food every day using every part of the animal it can, and the result is an odor that smells like a pile of intestines and everything that passes through it with notes of other things that have nothing to do with pork: Rotting eggs; spoiled chicken; a wet fart that lingers.

I went to Tar Heel, about an hour and a half from where I live in Raleigh, to talk about the smell with a local riverkeeper named Jeff Currie. Currie — a friendly 47-year old man with a head of ruffled hair who smoked as we rumbled along the rural roads in his minivan — was explaining the skepticism of local residents about the water quality when the smell knocked him off-track in the middle of his sentence, twisting his face into disgust. Although he grew up in Raleigh and nearby Johnston County, went to family gatherings where hog killings happened, and has been around farms for most of his life, he held his breath to keep from taking in the cocktail of animal waste and chemicals. “Damn. My god. That is caustic,” he muttered. “That was just nasty, dude.”

As bad as the whiff I got of the Tar Heel processing plant was, it’s nothing compared to the smell of the liquid mixture of pig shit and water that hog farms across the eastern part of the state pile up in huge pits and then spray on fields as fertilizer, sometimes in immediate proximity to neighboring houses. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong moment, you might be liable to catch a spritz of the world’s most rancid cocktail in your mouth.

A Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, NC.

A Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, NC.

A Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, NC.

The smell of hog farms and pork production plants and all of the problems that come with them — including potential health issues versus the economic boost the industry brings to the region — is a common dilemma in the small towns and rural areas in eastern North Carolina. And in the last few years, more and more of the farms’ immediate neighbors have started fighting back against the literal shit spray they have to live with.

In North Carolina, Smithfield owns or operates more than 200 hog farms, in addition to contract farms and six feed mills. Roughly 5,000 people work at the Tar Heel plant alone, and the facility “processes” more than 10 million hogs a year. Smithfield Foods, which is based in Virginia, is the world’s largest pork producer; in 2013, it was purchased by Chinese conglomerate WH Group for nearly $5 billion.

In 2014, 500 neighbors of farms operated by a subsidiary, Murphy-Brown, launched more than two dozen lawsuits against Smithfield, alleging that the hog farms and their associated problems had made life unbearable. So far, five lawsuits have gone to trial; Smithfield has lost them all and was ordered by juries to pay off $550 million in damages (reduced to $98 million due to a state cap on punitive damages). Smithfield has appealed all five, and in January, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the company’s lead appeal.

Numerous studies have indicated that living near facilities called Concentrated Animal Feeding Organizations (CAFOs) — defined by the USDA as “agricultural enterprises where animals are kept and raised in confined situations” that hold 500 tons of live animal weight — like the Smithfield plant has a detrimental impact on health. According to a 2018 Duke University study published in the North Carolina Medical Journal, those living near hog CAFOs “had higher all-cause and infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and higher hospital admissions/[emergency department] visits of [low-birth weight] infants.”

As the legal battles between Smithfield and its neighbors wound their way through the courts, industry-friendly state legislators passed laws imposing new restrictions on the sorts of quality-of-life lawsuits that can be brought against companies such as Smithfield. Those new laws have been challenged in a newer, state-level lawsuit by various environmental organizations including the Winyah Rivers Alliance, the organization for which Currie works.

At the core of these various convoluted legal fights lie centuries-old questions about environmental justice and where industry begins to infringe on personal property rights.

(When asked to provide comment for this story, a Smithfield spokesperson referred me to a January 31 company statement in which a company executive is quoted in part as saying the case was about “the rights of an independent family farm that has been operating for 25 years without any regulatory violation and without neighbor complaints.” Additionally, the spokesperson sent a link to this statement from the North Carolina Pork Council claiming that “these cases, and related efforts, are being advanced by groups with stated agendas that seek to put farmers out of business.” Where possible, The Outline has used publicly available information to represent Smithfield’s perspective on these matters.)

“I just kept reading this case, and I'm thinking to myself,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, a Reagan appointee, said last month during an appellate hearing for McKiver v. Murphy-Brown, one of the lawsuits against the Smithfield subsidiary. He laughed in exasperation. “If this were my property, I would be outraged at some of these conditions that were allowed to persist. Our less fortunate fellow citizens, they have property rights, too… they have a right to good health, to the enjoyment of their property.”

“If these were some McMansions surrounding these hog farming operations, if these were the houses of the affluent, wouldn’t those conditions have been cleared up sooner rather than later?”

To Jeff Currie, the odor emanating from a hog farm is something most eastern North Carolinians can recognize. “You grow up in the country and you’ve got animals around, you’re going to have smell,” he told me. “But some of the operations, the size of these operations — the smell just doesn’t go away.”

In his position with the Winyah Rivers Alliance — which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the state over the aforementioned new laws — Currie serves as a watchdog over the health of the Lumber River, which runs more than 130 miles through four counties in North Carolina and three in South Carolina. The job entails a number of things, including monitoring water quality, ensuring industry is complying with permits and regulations through investigations, and targeted environmental activism. It’s just as necessary, however, to be able to carry a conversation with potential allies, no matter how unlikely.

Jeff Currie points out the propane and waste storehouse on the Mountaire Chicken CAFO

Jeff Currie points out the propane and waste storehouse on the Mountaire Chicken CAFO

“There’s a guy at one of the hog operations who came out and asked what I was doing when I was sampling water,” Currie told me. “I said, ‘You might not like it when I tell you who I am.’ He said, ‘I don’t care.’ I said ‘Me neither, man,’ and we stood there and talked for a half hour about everything.”

Currie is not a scientist by trade. A registered member of the Lumbee tribe, he has a bachelors’ degree in American Indian studies and worked at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. But he also has a passion for conservation, and said he once remarked to a hydrologist friend at North Carolina State University that the Lumber River needed a riverkeeper.

In 2018, he moved to Robeson County to be just that for Winyah Rivers Alliance, whose mission is “to protect, preserve, monitor and revitalize the health of the lands and waters of the greater Winyah Bay watershed” of which the Lumber River is part of, according to its website.

Currie is careful not to mention what he said are hot-button “triggers” for people, such as “climate change” and “environmental justice” when attempting to educate locals about CAFOs, relying instead on what he believes is a common sense argument: That big agricultural operations should play by the same rules as everyone else.

Not everyone is as receptive to the message, though. “I guess there’s been different kinds of experiences. Some of them have been great,” he told me. “There have been a couple times where people didn’t like what I do and said something, and I’ve had a couple of interactions where they never blatantly said that they were gonna hurt me, but told me to move along.”

Legal battles over hogs are older than the United States itself. In 1611, a dispute between neighbors led the Court of the King’s Bench to conclude that “[a]n action on the case lies for erecting a hogstye so near the house of the plaintiff that the air thereof was corrupted.”

In North Carolina, the smell of hogs has been an issue for centuries. In 1831, a letter to the Weekly Raleigh Register said: “Are we to be eaten up with fleas, and our comfort to be impaired by the stench of Hogs in our town?” The other side of the conflict was equally vocal. In 1850, the editor of an Elizabeth City newspaper wrote of a local election which was decided on a debate over an ordinance banning people from keeping hogs within town limits: “Hogs or not hogs that was the question. The Hogmen were triumphant.”

According to Ryke Longest, the director of Duke University’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, these early disputes over pigs were “almost all” about “people’s pigs wandering around and getting into some kind of mischief, usually breaking down a fence or eating a bunch of collard greens or sweet potatoes.”

“That’s the classic case of what we call a nuisance,” he added.

Tobacco was North Carolina’s cash crop for centuries, but as health concerns related to smoking drove down demand, the number of hog farms began to grow — along with the state’s population. By the ’70s, the disputes began to center around the fact that there were too many people close to too many hogs, which were being housed in too small of a space.

As the industry grew, it began encroaching more and more on what Longest referred to as “essentially good neighbor provision[s].” He explained, “My right to use my property ends where my property right is infringing on your right to use your property.”

Nuisance lawsuits haven’t always gone the way of the farms’ neighbors. In 1995, for example, a Johnston County jury found that the odor emanating from a nearby farm wasn’t bad enough to award damages to 11 of the farm’s neighbors. "We're not against hog farms," the plaintiffs' lawyer said, according to a Rocky Mount Telegram report at the time. "We all have to eat pork. But you have to be considerate in deciding where to put them."

“We didn’t say that it didn’t smell,” one juror said following the decision. “Only that it wasn’t substantial.”

In 1985, North Carolina was ranked seventh in pork production nationally. In 1992, the hog population stood at around two million; just six years later, it had skyrocketed to 10.

The Major Murray Farm, a CAFO, was built next to Elsie Herring’s family’s land in 1986, according to court documents, but it took about a decade for her family to come face to face with the hog waste issue for the first time.

One Saturday in the mid-’90s, after Herring had moved back to her family’s land to help care for her mother and brother, she said her family was enjoying an afternoon on the porch when the hog farm began spraying waste in the direction of the nearby homes, forcing her family to “scramble” inside to get away.

Elsie Herring on her front porch.

Elsie Herring on her front porch.

“I grew up in that house, but I had never experienced anything like this before. The waste had this terrible, raw, stinking odor that we had never before experienced. We could still smell it when we were inside,” Herring recounted in testimony she gave to a congressional committee in November.

When I visited Herring, now 71, last December, we sat in her living room as her labrador/chow mix, Midnight, dutifully trotted around outside with a toy in his mouth. Boxes, picture frames, and other belongings lined the floor; Herring apologized and said she was still getting her house cleaned up after Hurricane Florence in 2018.

“We don’t cook out, we don’t sit out, we don’t invite people over,” Herring told me, referring to herself and other members of the family who live in houses on the tract of land. “All of those liberties were taken away from us.” She didn’t need to point out that the thing that took away those liberties was the smell.

The farm uses the “lagoon and sprayfield” system to get rid of the waste from two nearby hog houses which hold nearly 1,200 hogs total, according to court documents from 2014, when Herring and four of her family members sued Murphy-Brown. The lagoon and sprayfield system is a method to deal with increasing amounts of waste; it works, crudely, by letting pigs shit through the floor into a large pit, which is then flushed into a man-made lagoon, or as Waterkeepers’ Alliance staff attorney Will Hendrick described it to North Carolina Healthcare News last year, “an unlined hole in the ground.”

“It gives people headaches, it makes people gag,” Currie said of the smell. “It makes me gag.”

To stop the lagoons from overflowing up, farms spray the liquid waste into nearby fields using large sprinklers. There’s one big problem with this system, apart from the smell: Eastern North Carolina is vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding.

After Herring complained to the state about the odor around 2000, the then-operator of the farm, Carroll’s Foods (now owned by Smithfield), agreed to install smaller sprinklers and plant trees between the farm and Herring’s family’s land to “act as a buffer” and “hopefully reduce the effluent mist,” those documents say.

In a letter addressed to Herring, however, then-Gov. Jim Hunt warned her that “odors may continue to be a problem” but that the “state has no jurisdiction over odors from animal operations.”

I visited Herring in the morning, when the stench isn’t particularly pronounced. Much of the land, however, did have a distinctively mildewy odor. In addition to the smell, Herring has said that flies “and other recurring nuisances” caused by the farm are prevalent, according to court documents, including an inability to keep her windows open, which has raised her energy bill “substantially.”

Herring also said the spraying has affected her family’s financial security. “The value of the land has decreased,” Herring said. “Who would want to come in here near a hog facility?”

Living next to a shit-sprayfield can do a number on your mental health, too. “You get angry when they’re spraying this stuff and it stinks, and nobody wants to do anything about it,” she said. “You can’t keep it out of the house.”

Wendell Murphy and Elsie Herring were born of the same generation and the same county, Duplin, but have found themselves on opposite sides of this foul dispute.

Murphy graduated from North Carolina State University in 1960; by 1962, his family’s hog farming business, Murphy Family Farms, was founded. In 1980, he won the North Carolina Pork Council’s award for “outstanding pork producer”; two years later, he was elected to the state legislature.

In the ’80s and early ’90s, the North Carolina legislature, led by Murphy — at first as a Democratic state representative, and later as a state senator — worked tirelessly to protect Big Hog. It passed a series of laws that made the state more favorable to industry, including one nicknamed “Murphy’s Law” which eliminated the ability of local governments to impose zoning regulations on large-scale animal farms.

Murphy himself was one of the biggest hog farmers in the state, and in the years after leaving state government, his family was reportedly one of the largest contributors to state legislative candidates in North Carolina in the mid-’90s.

Major Murray Farm, which neighbors Elsie Herring’s house.

Major Murray Farm, which neighbors Elsie Herring’s house.

Pigs at a livestock market in Wendell, NC.

Pigs at a livestock market in Wendell, NC.

Major Murray Farm, which neighbors Elsie Herring’s house.

Pigs at a livestock market in Wendell, NC.

In 1995, the rapidly growing industry began facing heightened scrutiny. That February, the Raleigh News & Observer about Murphy’s role in the pork industry’s growth and its increasingly close ties to the state legislature. In July of that year, a dike collapse surrounding a manure lagoon caused 25 million tons of hog urine and feces to be spilled into the New River, causing massive fishkills. The legislature and then-Gov. Jim Hunt responded quickly with a round of new regulations, and in 1997, the legislature banned the construction of new CAFOs that used the lagoon and sprayfield system.

A sprayfield at a hog facility.

A sprayfield at a hog facility.

This system still exists in farms all over the state, however; in 2018, the trade publication National Hog Farmer reported that North Carolina had 3,300 active lagoons. As a result of Hurricane Florence that year, more than 50 of those lagoons overflowed, releasing millions of gallons of hog waste into the surrounding ecosystem, according to NPR.

In 2000, Smithfield entered into an agreement with the North Carolina attorney general’s office to develop “environmentally superior waste management technologies.” But as for the existing hog farms, Smithfield contends it’s doing enough to mitigate the effects on neighbors. Those neighbors say that they could be doing more, and aren’t, because it would cost money.

As for Murphy, the impact of the N&O story and the slowing of the hog industry’s growth led to his company losing millions by the end of the century. In 2000, Smithfield acquired Murphy Family Farms, which it later combined with another Smithfield hog producer, Brown’s of Carolina. The new company became known as Murphy-Brown.

Elsie Herring and her dog Midnight in front of her home in Wallace, NC.

Elsie Herring and her dog Midnight in front of her home in Wallace, NC.

Meanwhile, Elsie Herring was fed up, and she was far from the only one. “People didn’t like it, but they didn’t know what they could do about it,” Herring said. “I started meeting other people, telling them my story and showing them the kind of support I was getting outside of my community.”

Not only is the terrible odor a nuisance, a public health, and economic issue — it’s also one of class and race. Native Americans are more than twice as likely to live within three miles of an industrial hog operation as white people, with black people 1.54 times more likely and Latinos 1.39 times more likely, according to the complaint in the lawsuit against the state. In fact, all of those who filed lawsuits against Smithfield and Murphy-Brown are black, according to NC Policy Watch. (The Tar Heel plant was not implicated in the lawsuits.)

Herring wrote every elected official and department she could find, and protested at the state legislature alongside North Carolina-based groups like REACH and the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network for 51 consecutive hours. The protesters “brought along a mock hog facility, complete with a mini lagoon holding actual swine waste and a sprayfield.”

The activists helped bring media attention from all over the state and country to the plight of those living near the farms. In 2014, Herring became one of hundreds of those plaintiffs against Murphy-Brown.

In the McKiver v. Murphy-Brown complaint, for instance, the plaintiffs alleged that they “suffered episodes of noxious and sickening odor, onslaughts of flies and pests, nausea, burning and watery eyes, stress, anger, worry, loss of property value, loss of use and enjoyment of their property, inability to comfortably engage in outdoor activities, cookouts, gardening, lawn chores, drifting of odorous mist and spray onto their land, inability to keep windows and doors open, difficulty breathing and numerous other harms.” (In its response, Murphy-Brown denied the allegations.)

Herring alleged in her Congressional testimony that, in the late ‘90s or early 2000s, the son of the operator of the farm had come over twice with a gun, and once “shook the chair that my mother was sitting in and started cursing at her.”

“He yelled that he could do anything to me that he wanted to and get away with it,” Herring said in her testimony.

In court documents, Smithfield says that it’s improving waste management at its contract farms, citing a “a reduction of manure output of more than 35 percent” and a “greater than 30 percent reduction in water usage at both Murphy-Brown owned farms and contract grow-farms” since they first began operating.

Smithfield has also claimed that it’s making strides towards minimizing its environmental impact. The company, which produced 16.5 million hogs in the U.S. and another four million in Poland and Romania in 2018, lists among its environmental sustainability goals a 10 percent reduction in water usage by this year and a 75 percent reduction in solid waste by 2025.

To address the complaints about waste specifically, the company also said it would begin covering the lagoons and adding “digesters” to the mix, which would convert the methane gas from the waste into a renewable natural gas.

Not everyone believes that the company is doing all that it can. “Part of what was revealed in those nuisance suits was the fact that Smithfield has the ability to convert the lagoon and sprayfield system to updated technologies,” Elizabeth Haddix, an attorney for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told The Outline. “The [technologies] exist, are absolutely affordable, and are long overdue to replace these open pits and sprayfields.” One such system is Terra Blue, which treats the wastewater in tanks, separates the solid and liquid waste and converts the nitrogen to gas; in 2019, however, a Smithfield spokesperson told North Carolina Health News that the technology was only feasible for new farms.

Hog houses in eastern North Carolina.

Hog houses in eastern North Carolina.

Smithfield has said it will appeal its losses in the five lawsuits that have gone to trial. “We believe that this verdict is unfair and unjust. It presents an unwarranted threat to North Carolina farm families and to all agriculture across the country,” company spokeswoman Keira Lombardo told the Fayetteville Observer after a recent decision awarding $420,000 to ten neighbors was handed down. It’s this premise — that the lawsuits represent an existential threat to the industry — that spurred a new legislative push to protect it.

In 2017, the North Carolina legislature limited nuisance damages to what was lost in “fair-market value,” reducing the grower’s liability to what the damaged property was worth and nothing more. The following year, the General Assembly passed another law prohibiting nuisance lawsuits unless the “injured property” is located within a half-mile of the source of the nuisance, or if a new farm undergoes a “fundamental change.” The latter law specifically called out the “frivolous nuisance lawsuits” which had been “incorrectly and narrowly interpreted” as “threaten[ing] the very existence of farming in North Carolina.” In effect, the legislature cut those who have a nuisance claim down to the farms’ immediate neighbors, even if those beyond the new boundaries claimed to be affected.

The bills passed easily, split largely among Republican and Democratic lines. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bills, only to be overridden by the state legislature. (At the time, the Republicans had a supermajority of members in the 50-seat Senate and 120-member House, chambers whose districts they’ve been repeatedly sued over for gerrymandering; they lost their supermajorities after the 2018 midterms.)

The bills created a “self-fulfilling prophecy” for those affected by them, said Robert Reives, a top Democrat in the State House. “You’ve got people who are economically disadvantaged — a disproportionate amount of those people, especially down east, are African-American — and I think the problem is that they can’t exercise the same property rights as people who may not be in the same economic position.”

A truck loaded with pigs pulls into the Smithfield facility in Tar Heel, NC.

A truck loaded with pigs pulls into the Smithfield facility in Tar Heel, NC.

It hasn’t been all bad news. In 2018, the state Department of Environmental Quality settled a federal civil rights complaint by entering into an agreement with a coalition of groups including REACH, the NCEJN, and the Waterkeepers’ Alliance. Among other reforms, the state committed to monitoring air quality and surface water for at least a year, and established an environmental justice and equity board.

On Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the end of slavery in Texas and emancipation more broadly, that same coalition of groups (as well as the group Currie works for, the Winyah Rivers Alliance) and lawyers from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sued the state and legislative leaders in state court over the constitutionality of the new laws.

“Part of what all of those organizations have been about for over a decade has been trying to get the state to protect people from the impact of these operations through better oversight and regulation,” Haddix, one of two attorneys for the groups, told me. “It was the next logical step to say, ‘You can’t just make a special law for the hog industry.’”

In a nearly hour-long hearing in Richmond last month, Smithfield appellate lawyer Stuart Raphael made his case for the three-judge panel to overturn the verdict in McKiver v. Murphy-Brown, in which a federal jury awarded the plaintiffs a $50 million judgment that was reduced as a result of state limits on punitive damages. “This really is a separation of powers issue,” Raphael argued. “The plaintiffs are trying to use this case and other cases following it to force Smithfield and Murphy-Brown to abandon the lagoon and sprayfield system and to force hundreds of farms in North Carolina to abandon that system, which is perfectly legal under North Carolina law.”

“The hog farming here — it certainly provides many jobs in eastern North Carolina, and I understand that," Wilkinson said. "But it's harmful to the people that live nearby… it's got to be environmentally harmful to the waterways, seeping into the water. Nobody wants another Flint, Michigan tragedy down the road.” The panel has 90 days from the date of the hearing to come to a ruling.

Six months after the lawsuit was filed, the state’s chief justice has not yet assigned a panel. The outcome will also likely depend on political considerations; elections later this year will determine control of the North Carolina governor’s office, the state legislature, and the North Carolina Supreme Court, not to mention the presidential election and who gets to nominate federal judges.

“I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me like the way our constitution’s written, that some of the laws they passed just shouldn’t be allowed,” Currie opined. “Whenever you’re impacted the way a lot of these folks are, you don’t really have a whole lot of quality of life.”

For Herring, she just wants what she calls her “birthright,” and said that once all of the legal questions are cleared up, she wants to “pursue her family’s land.”

“Everybody’s got the right to liberty and happiness and to own property,” she said. “We don’t want anything in our backyard that you wouldn’t put in your backyard.”

(A previous version of this story said the Winyah Rivers Alliance were party to the civil rights complaint and settlement; they were only party to the lawsuit against the state.)

Paul Blest is a writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina. His previous piece for The Outline was on unionization efforts at Hearst Media. Sarah Riazati is a documentary filmmaker and lecturer at Duke University.