LAURINBURG — Members of the local legislative delegation say they want what is best for both local farmers and residents, but that is sometimes a hard line to walk.
Last week, the state House passed legislation that to limit farms’ liability in lawsuits over animal waste smells. But the House also added a significant change that will keep it from applying to current lawsuits against a large hog producer.
The state Senate is expected to take up the bill after the Easter holiday.
The legislation would limit penalties that a jury or judge could impose against hog farms or other agricultural operations in lawsuits accusing them of creating a nuisance for neighbors. The farms’ liability would be limited to the lost rental or property value plaintiffs can prove was the result of the nuisance. The liability couldn’t exceed a piece of property’s market value.
State Rep. Ken Goodman, who voted in favor of the bill, said his intention is to protect small local farming operations.
“There are a lot of small farmers, and this bill is not just for livestock farmers — people have zeroed in on hog farmers, but I think it will benefit all people that have small farms in our part of the state,” Goodman said. “I just thought it was the right thing to do.”
Individuals can still sue for personal injury, and sue for negligence. “you can sue for all kinds of things and those types of lawsuits aren’t included in this bill.”
“You can sue for all kinds of things and those types of lawsuits aren’t included in this bill,” Goodman said. “If there are health problems, water contamination, you can seek damages — this is very narrow and very limited.”
But the bill did not pass the smell test for some lawmakers who alluded to a group of lawsuits by 500 rural neighbors of North Carolina hog farms who say flies and animal waste smells are a significant problem. A trial could occur as early as this summer.
The federal lawsuits largely target the North Carolina-based hog production division of Virginia’s Smithfield Foods, which is owned by a division of China-based WH Group. The Chinese company is the world’s largest pork producer.
State Rep. Garland Pierce, who voted against the bill, believes the state must protect residents of affected communities who have nowhere else to go, even though he appreciates what Scotland County’s local farmers do for the community.
“I know the local farmers and growers and I appreciate all of them, but at the same time, people have a right to enjoy their homes they have built before the nuisances, and it is just sad at this time that the farmers are considered the nuisance,” Pierce said.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Republican Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County, argued that the bill was needed to protect the network of contract farmers in North Carolina who raise the hogs for large pork producers.
Dixon, himself a longtime farmer, argued that many of the allegations that the farms create a nuisance are “at best exaggerations and at worst outright lies.”
Under common waste-handling practices for hog farms, liquid waste is often sprayed onto acres of farm fields. The droplets can radiate smells and be carried by wind.
“I have lived on a farm all my life. My children and my grandchildren have walked gleefully with me through my hog houses and my turkey houses, and they’ve participated on a daily basis,” Dixon said.
For his part, Pierce said the law needs to treat everyone fairly.
“I am not in opposition of the farmers because I know they do great job supplying us with food and I always support the farmers, but I think there were some other underlying themes that the bill was trying to get rid of the current pending allegations of people who had already filed lawsuits, and that is unconstitutional,” Pierce said. “That’s not the way we should operate as a country.”
Reach Nolan Gilmour at 910-506-3171