Fifty yards from Miller’s family graveyard is a massive, open-air cesspool storing the pigs’ waste — a stagnant pool containing their feces, urine, blood and other bodily fluids — often referred to as a “lagoon,” one of about 3,300 lagoons across the state. When the cesspool reaches its capacity, its contents are liquefied and sprayed into a field across the street from Miller’s house via a large, sprinkler-like apparatus. The sprayer releases a mist of waste onto the field, which, according to court documents, is about 200 feet from Miller’s home at its closest rotation.
That system prevents the cesspool from overflowing, but Miller says it also makes her life miserable.
It’s more than just the smell, she says. The liquefied waste mist drifts onto her property, and “dead boxes” filled with rotting hogs sit near her family’s cemetery, attracting buzzards, gnats and swarms of large, black flies. After spending time outside, she says, her eyes burn and her nose waters. She says she also suffers from asthma, which she began to develop shortly after she returned to her childhood home from New Jersey in the late eighties to care for her ailing mother.
Research published by the late Steven Wing, a professor of epidemiology at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, linked similar health concerns to proximity to hog farms.
Wing, who passed away in November, described his research in a 2013 TED Talk: “In 1995, I began to meet neighbors of industrial hog operations,” he said. “I saw how close some neighborhoods are to hog operations. People told me about contaminated wells, the stench from hog operations that woke them at night and children who were mocked at school for smelling like hog waste. I studied the medical literature and learned about the allergens, gases, bacteria and viruses released by these facilities — all of them capable of making people sick.”
Wing’s research showed a correlation between air pollution from hog farms and higher rates of nausea, increases in blood pressure, respiratory issues such as wheezing and increased asthma symptoms for children, and overall diminished quality of life for people living nearby.
“Air pollutants from the routine operation of confinement houses, cesspools and waste sprayers affect nearby neighborhoods where they cause disruption of activities of daily living, stress, anxiety, mucous membrane irritation, respiratory conditions, reduced lung function and acute blood pressure elevation,” Wing and fellow UNC researcher Jill Johnston wrote in a 2014 study.
They also found that the state’s industrial hog operations disproportionately affect African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. That pattern, they concluded, “is generally recognized as environmental racism.”
Three years ago, Miller and more than 500 other NC residents, mostly poor and African American, filed 26 federal lawsuits against Murphy-Brown, alleging its behavior adversely affects their health and quality of life. The lawsuits argue that Murphy-Brown’s parent company, Smithfield — which was purchased by the multinational Chinese corporation WH Group in 2013 for an estimated $4.7 billion — has the financial resources to manage the pigs’ waste in a way that minimizes the odor and nuisance to nearby property owners.
The industry dismisses these claims.
“North Carolina’s hog farmers are under a coordinated attack by predatory lawyers, anti-farm activists, and their allies,” Smithfield Foods said in an email. “The lawsuits are about one thing and one thing only: a money grab.”
Smithfield points to the fact that between 2012 and 2016, the DEQ only received 25 odor complaints, and of those, none resulted in fines or notices of violations.
“More than 80 percent of hog farms are owned and operated by families,” Smithfield argues. “They produce good products, they do it the right way, and they strive to be good neighbors.”
Other industry advocates have also alleged that greed is at the heart of these claims. The NC Pork Council, a trade group funded by commercial hog operations, has blamed the lawsuits on avaricious attorneys who “like to sue farmers for as much money as possible,” according to a pork council statement. (The council did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
In an email, Mark Anderson, an attorney representing Murphy-Brown, says the company “is aggressively contesting the plaintiffs’ claims. After careful study, we concluded that the claims are not valid and have no merit.”
But Miller says she knows what she’s experienced — and that life on Veachs Mill Road has deteriorated since the hog houses came.
“Right now,” she says, “my life is the worst it’s ever been.”
The cases are pending in federal court. No trial dates have been set.
III. ‘Boss Hog’s crown jewel’
North Carolina’s pork production industry has shifted dramatically since the mid-’80s. Today’s industrial farms, often called “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs, raise pigs and other livestock in confinement until they are ready for slaughter. The hogs generally live in cramped quarters; Michelle B. Nowlin, supervising attorney of Duke’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, estimates they typically get seven or eight square feet of space each.
When they have to relieve themselves, slatted, slanted floors filter their waste into pits that feed into open-air cesspools that sit just behind the hog houses. These pools, known as lagoons, come in muted tones of brown and sometimes Pepto-Bismol pink, courtesy of a cocktail of chemicals and pig waste.
The move from small family farm to massive commercial operation didn’t happen overnight. Starting in the 1980s and early 1990s, a new method of pig farming began to take hold as corporate hog producers and CAFOs began replacing independent, family-owned farms. In an arrangement known as contract farming, many larger companies bought family farms or merged with them by providing pigs in exchange for land and waste management services.
As the state gravitated toward a corporate production model — one already in place for the poultry industry — thousands of independent farmers left the business. According to Census data, the number of farms in the state fell from more than 11,000 in 1982 to 2,217 in 2012.
Nobody was more influential in reshaping the industry than Wendell Murphy, a powerful Democratic state legislator and the subject of the N&O’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Boss Hog” series. Murphy, a high school agriculture teacher turned farmer from Rose Hill, grew to become the nation’s top hog producer during his tenure in the General Assembly from 1982 to ’93. While in office, he backed legislation to provide poultry and hog farmers with tax breaks and exemptions from environmental regulation, helping “pass laws worth millions of dollars to his company and his industry,” the N&O reported.
This included the 1991 “Murphy Amendment,” which exempted poultry and animal operations from stricter regulations on air and water pollution, and a 1991 bill that barred counties from imposing zoning restrictions on hog farms. In 1986, he voted in favor of a bill that eliminated sales taxes on hog and poultry operations.
By 1995, Duplin County was home to more than 1 million hogs, more than six times the number it had when Murphy was first elected. Most of them, the N&O reported, belonged to none other than Murphy Family Farms, Boss Hog’s crown jewel. Five years later, Murphy Family Farms was acquired by Smithfield, and its name was changed to Murphy-Brown LLC.
With the acquisition, Smithfield became the world’s largest hog producer.
IV. ‘Heaven 4 Hogs, Hell 4 Humans’
To an outsider, it might seem like business as usual. Murphy played politics and his company came out for the better. But for Don Webb, a living history book on all things related to hog farming, something was amiss.
A former hog farmer, Webb bore witness to the industry’s explosive growth firsthand. He grew up on a farm in Stantonsburg and cropped tobacco and picked corn with his bare hands. His father sold pigs right off the family farm. After a brief stint as a PE teacher, Webb started a successful hog farm in Northampton County in the mid-’70s. But after an up-close experience with pig waste management, Webb has since become a thorn in the industry’s side.
Webb, now 76 years old, has a thick drawl and is prone to impassioned rants. Next to a chair inside his house, he sets an otherwise unassuming leather briefcase decorated with bumper stickers bearing such slogans as “Welcome to North Carolina: Heaven 4 Hogs, Hell 4 Humans.”
“They say they love America, but they really love somethin’ else,” he scoffs. “It’s green. How many hog pens have you found next to a country club?”
Webb’s transition from hog farmer to fuming activist was years in the making. He got into hog farming at the urging of a friend. At his farm’s peak, he had about 4,000 hogs — a small number by today’s standards, but enough to turn a handsome profit. He managed the pig waste similarly to how today’s farms do it. The slanted floors of his farm’s hog house filtered the waste into cesspools. When those filled up, they sprayed it elsewhere.
It was a matter of conscience that charted his current path, he says. Several of his neighbors told him that the stench from his farm was making their lives miserable. They grumbled about being quarantined indoors on sweltering summer evenings, unable to go outside on account of the pungent, fly-infested air.
“I said, ‘Suppose that was my mama and daddy back there,’” he says. “‘How would I feel?’ I hit the brakes on that truck.”
In 1979, after about five years in the business, Webb sold his hogs and relocated to Cape Hatteras, where “the air was fresh.” When he returned to Duplin County six years later, however, he was greeted once again by that stench. That’s what ultimately turned him into an activist, he says.
“These are human beings,” Webb says. “They’ve worked their whole lives and are tryin’ to have a clean home and a decent place to live, and they can’t go on their front porch and take a deep breath.”
While legal, hog farms’ longstanding practice of disposing of excess waste by spraying it as mist onto nearby fields has proven controversial. Farms’ neighbors have complained that the system literally brings excrement to their doorsteps, allowing the liquefied waste to ride the wind to their property. In May, Shane Rogers, a former EPA and USDA environmental engineer, published a report that concluded that this is exactly what happens.
The study, which was filed in court documents on behalf of plaintiffs suing Murphy-Brown, relied on both air and physical samples collected from the exteriors of homes located near Murphy-Brown hog fields. The homes were selected randomly, and “at every visit and every home, I experienced offensive and sustained swine manure odors to varying intensity, from moderate to very strong,” Rogers wrote.
To test for the presence of pig-manure DNA, Rogers and his team collected DNA swab samples from the exterior walls of homes and from the air itself. In total, they collected 31 samples from the outside walls of 17 homes and submitted them for DNA testing; 14 of 17 homes tested positive.
Additionally, all six of the dust samples taken from the air “contained tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of hog feces DNA particles,” Rogers wrote, “demonstrating exposure to hog feces bioaerosols for clients who breathe in the air at their homes. Considering the facts, it is far more likely than not that hog feces also gets inside clients’ homes where they live and where they eat.”
Anderson, Murphy-Brown’s attorney, disputes the notion that the company’s farms and contractors disrupt their neighbors’ quality of life.