Corporate Hog Farm Industry Hit with Legal Assault

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, December 7, 2000 (ENS) - A coalition of environmental and family farm activist groups has recruited a powerful team of private sector attorneys and law firms to launch what they are calling a "broad legal assault" against the corporate hog industry.

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A hog facility in Georgia, with a waste lagoon on the right. Some hog waste lagoons are ten acres in size and three stories deep. (Photo by Gene Alexander, courtesy of the USDA)

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., president of the New York based Water Keeper Alliance, announced the initiative at a news conference on Wednesday in Washington. Kennedy, flanked by a platoon of attorneys from some of the nation's most prominent law firms, said corporate "hog factories" are imposing disastrous impacts on family farmers and America's ecosystems.

"What we're dealing with here is a crime," Kennedy said of the corporate hog industry. "It's an assault on American communities and our natural resources."

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is president of the Water Keepers Alliance, a coalition of citizen groups that patrol waterways in order to enforce environmental laws (Photo courtesy the Water Keeper Alliance)

Kennedy said that it was necessary to assemble a team of private lawyers to take on the corporate hog industry because federal and state authorities have been unable or unwilling to do so.

Kennedy blamed the federal government's failure to rein in the hog industry on Republican lawmakers, who cut the budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by roughly 50 percent when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House of Representatives in 1995.

Kennedy added that there has been an "almost total collapse of state enforcement" against corporate hog farms in North Carolina, Indiana, and a host of other states. Many of those states, he said, have opted to "lower their environmental standards, and to recruit polluters into the state with the promise of a few years of pollution based prosperity."

"Federal environmental prosecution against the meat industry has effectively ceased because Congress has eviscerated the EPA's enforcement budget, while the political clout of powerful pork producers has trumped state enforcement efforts," Kennedy said. "This collapse of environmental enforcement has allowed corporate hog factories to proliferate with huge pollution based profits."

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A sow in a crate. Animal advocacy groups say conditions on factory farms are exceedingly cruel. (Photo courtesy Farm Sanctuary)

Kennedy pointed out that the team of private attorneys and law firms that have enlisted in the battle against corporate hog farms are "veterans of the legal wars" that have been waged against some of the most powerful industries in America, such as the tobacco industry.

"We went to them because we believe that the private bar is the only place that citizens can go for redress, because there's so much money going into the political process that it has become paralyzed in its ability to protect Americans from pollution," Kennedy said. "This historic assemblage of legal talent will fill in the vacancy left by the government's failure to prosecute and confront these polluters with the most formidable threat they've ever faced."

Among the dream team of lawyers put together to take on the corporate hog industry is Richard Middleton, the immediate past president of the American Trial Lawyers Association. Also on board is Jan Schlitchtmann, whose efforts to uncover the truth about a polluted site in Massachusetts were recounted in the best selling book "A Civil Action."

"Our objective is to civilize this [corporate hog farm] industry," Schlitchtmann said.

Fifteen of the most prominent law firms in America have each contributed $50,000 to cover initial litigation costs, Kennedy said. The team will use a variety of legal strategies to force the corporate hog farm industry to comply with state and federal environmental laws, including class action lawsuits, Kennedy said.

Kennedy and the coalition's other members maintain that corporate hog farms routinely violate federal and state environmental laws by discharging hog waste into the nation's waterways.

This waste, which is often stored in lagoons as large as ten acres in area, typically contains a host of antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides and other toxic poisons, they note. Discharges from these vast fecal lagoons have spoiled thousands of miles of rivers, aquifers and public waterways, and have aggravated fish kills involving billions of fish, critics note.

Disease outbreaks linked to these discharges have sickened fishermen and other recreational river users with respiratory problems and a host of other afflictions, Kennedy noted. And the horrific stench from industrial hog operations has made it impossible for people to live normal lives in their communities, Kennedy said.

"People flying over these facilities at 3000 feet feel like they've been hit with something physical," Kennedy observed.

Kennedy's point was echoed by Scott Dye, agricultural coordinator of the Sierra Club.

"The companies that own these pollution factories are renegades - they're outlaws," Dye said. "They clearly have ignored both federal and state laws, and they will continue to do so until we civilize this industry."

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Hogs eating at a stockyard (Photo courtesy of the USDA)

Dye, Kennedy and the other members of the coalition all maintain that the fecal lagoon system utilized by most corporate hog farmers is illegal. They maintain that such fecal lagoons are "toxic waste sites," and that their contents should be required to pass through industrial sewage treatment plants before being discharged into the environment.

"These are not farms - they are industrial operations and need to be held to the same standards as any other industry," said Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club. "Thousands of miles of our nation's rivers and streams have been contaminated by runoff of animal feces, and the foul stench makes life miserable for those who live nearby."

The lagoon system also puts traditional family farmers out of business, because it allows corporate hog producers to "externalize" the costs of not treating their sewage, Kennedy said.

"They are forcing their communities to pay the costs," Kennedy said. "If they were actually forced to internalize their costs of production, they could not outcompete a family farm."

By using the fecal lagoon system, corporate hog farmers have been able to artificially lower the price of raising pork to about 11 cents per pound. Hog farmers not using the waste lagoon system have production costs of about 31 cents per pound, Kennedy said.

"They've been able to drive 75 percent of the family farmers out of business in this country," Kennedy said of corporate hog farmers.

Leland Swenson, president of the National Farmer's Union, echoed Kennedy's point. Swenson said that in the last decade, a handful of major corporations have been positioning themselves to completely control hog production and wipe out independent family hog farmers.

"Industrial hog production is not farming," Swenson said. "The practices of these corporate giants have nothing to do with traditional agriculture, and are forcing many farmers out of business."

Backed by its legal dream team, the coalition has to date filed six federal court actions against corporate hog producers. The suits allege violations of the federal Clean Water Act and infractions of other federal environmental laws. Most of the lawsuits have been filed in North Carolina, where many corporate hog production facilities are located. Ultimately, legal actions may be initiated in as many as 24 states, Kennedy said.

Among the defendants in the lawsuits brought by the coalition is the Smithfield Foods Company, the largest hog producer and pork processor in the world. In June, Kennedy's coalition was among a group of plaintiffs which brought a nuisance lawsuit against Smithfield, North Carolina's 11th largest manufacturer and its 35th largest employer.

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More than 10 million hogs are kept at factory farms in North Carolina (Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Richard Poulson, Smithfield's vice president and senior advisor to the chairman, called the suit "nothing but a publicity stunt designed to raise money for out of state activist groups."

"Kennedy and his cohorts make the preposterous claim that the pork industry is responsible for North Carolina's water pollution problems," Poulson said shortly after the filing of the suit. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Poulson said that if Kennedy and the other "so-called environmentalists" had ever spent any time in North Carolina, they would have discovered that "rivers near hog farms are no more polluted than rivers elsewhere." The Black River, which is in "the heart of hog country," is in even better shape than most waterways in the region, Poulson added.

Poulson said that the "real culprits" responsible for polluting the state's rivers are industries and municipalities that discharge raw sewage and other contaminants, and farmers who allow pesticides and other substances to run off their fields. Poulson said that Kennedy and his "trial lawyer buddies" do not really care about clean water, and that they are instead motivated solely by greed.

"They admitted that all they wanted was money and that they didn't care if they shut down the hog indutry in North Carolina to get it," Poulson said. "That reeks of extortion."

Kennedy scoffed at the suggestion, saying that Smithfield and the other corporate hog producers "know what they're doing is illegal." He predicted that once their operating permits expire, they will "move to Mexico, where they don't have environmental laws."

Kennedy's Water Keepers Alliance will host a roundtable discussion on the corporate hog farm issue next month in New Bern, North Carolina. The event is expected to draw environmentalists, farmers, scientists, attorneys, religious leaders, labor leaders and animal welfare advocates from across the country.