Environmental Working Group says House Bill 467 could affect 190 sites in Bladen County

By: By Chrysta Carroll - ccarroll@civitasmedia.com

A Washington, D.C.-based organization thinks North Carolina House Bill 467 — which could affect almost 200 sites in Bladen County — is hogwash.

On April 10, the North Carolina House gave its stamp of approval to the Agriculture and Forestry Nuisance Remedies Bill, putting a cap on the amount of compensation to which neighbors of farms may be entitled. Under HB467, penalties imposed against agricultural entities, including hog farms, would be restricted to lost rental or property value that can be directly attributed to the nearby farm and cannot exceed the market value of the property allegedly devalued.

Later in the week, Environmental Working Group, a non-profit headquartered in Washington, D.C., and claiming to be “dedicated to protecting human health and the environment,” released a report about the implications of House Bill 467.

“(The bill) is moving through the North Carolina legislature at an incredibly rapid pace with no indication anyone has taken pause to evaluate how many people are affected by the legislation or the scope of it,” said Craig Cox, Senior Vice President of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Environmental Working Group. “It’s clearly being driven by pork producers.”

The organization’s report details the number of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, and the number of people potentially impacted by House Bill 467. Statewide, approximately 360,000 people live within a half mile of a CAFO, and, when the radius is extended to three miles, it encompasses nearly one million people.

In the country’s second-largest pork producing state, Bladen County is ninth when it comes to the number of CAFOs. According to the report, there are 190 poultry and swine CAFOs in Bladen County. More than 4.4 million animals are raised on county farms, with 756,460 of them being hogs. The animals produce 39,915 gallons of dry waste and 778 million gallons of wet waste each year.

In Duplin County — which came in the highest in the state with the number of people living near CAFOs — approximately 4,660 residences and possibly more than one-fifth of the population are located within a half a mile of a CAFO.

Will Hendrick, staff attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance and Manager at NC Pure Farms Pure Waters Campaign, said the report is an attempt — in light of the bill — “to inform public discourse and legislative decision making in what we think is poorly drafted and bad policy.”

The report reads, “During debate on HB 467 in the House Judiciary Committee, former Rep. Philip Lehman, D-Durham, estimated that in a typical case the diminished rental value might be $200 a month over three years, or a little over $7,000. For that modest amount, operators will weigh the cost of fixing the problem against simply continuing to pay the neighbor, so capping damages takes away the incentive for CAFOs to clean up their acts.”

“‘Nuisance’ is really a misnomer,” explained Soren Rundquist, director of Spatial Analysis with EWG. “You think of ‘nuisance’ as a noisy factory across the street or tearing up street, but we’re talking — and this has been well documented — about people trapped in houses unable to enjoy their property because of the stench. And when you start looking more deeply, you find airborne illnesses, asthma, and other problems.”

Hendrick said the bill “reduces compensatory damages to a real estate transaction.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the current guidelines,” commented N.C. House Representative William Brisson (D-Bladen), who voted last week in favor of HB467. “Very few people have complained about hog farms for 21 years — until this firm came along — because the regulations work when they’re followed. Some farmers may not follow the rules, and that creates problems, but the regulations are good.”

One of the companies that would have to “clean up (its) act” is Smithfield Foods, which is facing 26 nuisance-related lawsuits over its farms. House Bill 467 passed only after it was amended to remove the possibility of applying the bill retroactively to pending litigation. The amendment itself only narrowly passed (59-56) and is still in the Senate bill.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Duplin County’s Jimmy Dixon, said the bill was necessary to protect the state’s pork producers and told The Associated Press the allegations against hog farms are “at best exaggerations and at worst outright lies.”

Calls left with Don Butler, director of government relations for Smithfield, were not returned.

After passing the House, the bill was referred to the Committee On Rules and Operations of the Senate on April 11.

Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.

By Chrysta Carroll