Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, now owned by China's WH Group, was ordered by a federal jury on Friday to pay nearly $500 million to residents; $23.5 million is for compensatory damages and $450 million was awarded in punitive damages for hog farm pollution and nuisances.
While the sum will be reduced to a payout of $94 million under the state's limits, the victory for the residents and environmentalists is momentous.
The plaintiffs alleged that Smithfield failed to stop “the obnoxious, recurrent odors and other causes of nuisance” from its hog farms, which the lawsuit said, “generate many times more sewage than entire towns.”
Hog farms like those operated by Smithfield, often use an open-air pit method of containing the animal waste. With tens of thousands of hogs often housed in one industrial farm, the pits fill quickly. The farms have historically emptied pits and sprayed the waste onto farm fields despite controversy surrounding the practice.
The odor produced by the waste overwhelmed residents; many said they had to seal windows and doors and avoid spending time outside to minimize exposure to the overwhelming stench produced by the farms.
The plaintiffs also complained that Smithfield failed to mitigate the odor through methods such as covering waste pits despite similar efforts to reduce odors at the company's farms in Missouri and Colorado.
The jury's decision comes after several other recent lawsuits in North Carolina, the nation's second-largest pork producing state after Iowa, found Smithfield guilty of nuisance pollution, ordering the company to pay $75 million in damages. Those penalties were also reduced.
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North Carolina's pork industry has been swift in retaliating; Republican Senator Thom Tillis and U.S. Rep. David Rouzer say they may take legislation to Washington to help protect the industry. Similar lawsuits across the country are likely to follow.
“Today’s nuisance lawsuits that are destroying livelihoods and communities in North Carolina are the tip of the iceberg for what is to come absent a well-informed public and good public policy,” Rouzer said in a statement. “This is a very slippery slope that threatens the very existence of every form of agriculture nationwide.”
The North Carolina Pork Council also voiced disappointment, calling for an appeal.
“This verdict will spread from eastern North Carolina to all corners of American agriculture,” the group said.
But environmental advocates say it's about time pork producers are held responsible.
“These juries are repeatedly seeing problems with the kind of waste management that’s used,” Cassie Gavin, a lobbyist with the North Carolina Sierra Club, said in a statement. “Clearly it’s time for the state and the industry to take a hard look at their waste management and modernize it so the public is protected.”
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