Black neighbors, white farmer (and police chief): Murphy-Brown nuisance trial heightens environmental justice concerns

By: - June 1, 2018 6:00 am
Joey Carter raises hogs for Murphy-Brown on two farms just west of Beulaville in Duplin County. The buildings, lagoons and sprayfields are shown here in the upper left and lower left areas of the aerial photo. The seven families suing Murphy-Brown live within just a few hundred yards of the buildings, lagoons or sprayfields. Their homes are on the right side of the photo. (From court exhibits)

1,300 words, 6-minute read

Update: Since there are questions about the veracity of the reporting, court documents, which form the basis of the story, have been uploaded to this post. Clarification: Because of the manner in which the court has ordered the cases to proceed, the plaintiffs’ and defense attorneys alternate in choosing the parties. In the first case, the plaintiffs’ attorneys chose; in this case, the defense did. Thus, the 30 original plaintiffs who sued Murphy-Brown in this case, has been narrowed to two: Elvis and Vonnie Williams.

[dropcap] A [/dropcap] t nine o’clock one recent morning the doors to a seventh-floor federal courtroom in Raleigh swung open, revealing an unspoken truth.

On the plaintiffs’ side, nearly everyone seated was Black; on the other, everyone associated with the defense was white.

Now, plaintiffs and defendants often sit on opposite sides of the aisle; it’s a common way to self-organize. But this nuisance trial, and the one before it, have amplified the environmental justice issues associated with industrialized hog farms in eastern North Carolina. Both cases have pitted Black neighbors seeking relief against white-owned farms, whose operations and hogs are controlled and owned by Murphy-Brown, the world’s largest pork producer.

In this trial, the second of roughly two dozen scheduled through the year, seven Black families totaling 30 plaintiffs originally sued Murphy-Brown, although because of a court order, that number has been reduced to two. The company owns the 4,740 hogs raised by Joey Carter, a contract grower in Beulaville, in Duplin County. But in addition to his power as a farmer backed by a billion-dollar corporation, Carter has a special status: He served as a Beulaville police officer for 32 years, four of them as chief.

[bctt tweet=”Hog nuisance trials are underscoring the #environmentaljustice issues associated with #CAFOS in eastern NC” username=”NCPolicyWatch”]

The issues of race, though, are still lingering in the background and have yet to be delved into during the first week of the trial. Instead, the plaintiffs’ attorneys at Wallace and Graham, based in Salisbury, are laying a similar foundation to the one that succeeded in the previous case: Prime the jury on the basics of nuisance law. Educate them on the health problems associated with living near industrialized hog farms.  Then zero in on the wealth and political power of Murphy-Brown, including the corporate giant’s apparent unwillingness to substantially change its farming methods in the name of profit.

Beulaville, population 1,300, is in eastern Duplin County. Big Ag, including companies like Murphy-Brown, Carolina Turkeys and House of Raeford,  is a major industry in the county, but the wealth has not trickled down to the average person. More than 21 percent of Duplin County residents live below the federal poverty level, compared with 15 percent statewide. Although many families are cash-poor, they do own land, often inherited from their parents or grandparents. In turn, they intend to leave their property to their children —  if the kids can stand to live there. In court documents, the families allege that stench, insects, buzzards, dust, dead hogs and truck traffic emanating from the confinement buildings, lagoons, sprayfields and farm operations “have substantially and unreasonably interfered with their use and enjoyment” of their property — the cornerstone of nuisance law.

Duplin County, human population 58,000, hog population 2 million

“The bad smells, and flies, too, and gnats,” testified Barbara Gibbs in a deposition. Gibbs’ home, where she has lived for more than 40 years, is sandwiched between Carters’ two farms. “They ran me out of the yard one day. They did. I had to take a break from them.” [bctt tweet=”Stench, insects, buzzards, dust, dead hogs and truck traffic ” username=”NCPolicyWatch”] Cartha Williams lives 150 yards — little more than the length of a football field  — from a land application field, where thousands of gallons of hog waste and urine are sprayed.

Other residents live no farther than 750 yards from lagoons or even the hog buildings themselves. Some residents buy bottled water because their well water smells and tastes bad. According to court documents, feces-and-urine-laden spray even landed on Perry Williams’s house, which is 230 yards from the southern Carter farm. “The spray mist and splattering left sticky stains on the side of his home requiring him to scrub the smelly mess off by hand,” court documents read.

Gibbs Deposition by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

The farm has encroached even closer to the home of Woodell and Wanda McGowan. At some point before 2010, according to court documents, a dead box — basically a dumpster for deceased hogs — had been placed just 2 feet from his property line and near his grandchildrens’ swing set. The McGowans phoned the farm to complain, but no one returned their calls. Only after they called Murphy-Brown did someone from the farm move the dead box — but only another 80 feet away, less than the distance between bases on a baseball field.

Considering the distance between the farms and the families’ homes, the complaints are not surprising, testified UNC epidemiologist Steve Wing. This week the jury viewed a video deposition of Wing recorded before his death, in 2016, of colon cancer.

Although Wing had not visited the plaintiffs’ homes or Carter’s farms, Wing’s peer-reviewed research confirmed that the closer people live to industrialized hog operations, the more likely they were to complain about quality-of-life issues: difficulty sleeping, inability to hang their laundry on the line or open their windows, or even go outside to walk, garden or gather for events, like reunions and birthday parties.

They were also more likely to report suffering from health problems: headaches, nausea, coughing and respiratory issues. Wing testified that people with respiratory disorders are especially vulnerable to the air pollution, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, emitted by industrialized hog farms. One of the plaintiffs’ grandchildren, who lives with them, suffers from asthma. Two of the original plaintiffs attending the trial breathed with the help of portable oxygen. Right to Farm laws, which heavily favor large agricultural operations, have been passed in all 50 states. In 1979, North Carolina lawmakers passed the state’s original Right to Farm Act, insulating established farming operations from nuisance claims if the neighbors “moved to the nuisance.”

It is hard to get away from an industrialized hog farm in Duplin County. About 58,000 people live within the county’s 822 square miles, as do 2 million hogs, or 32 per person. But in this case, as in the previous trial, the families arrived long before Joey Carter’s farm.

Most of the plaintiffs have lived on their property from 40 to 70 years, having inherited it from their parents or grandparents. Joey Carter, on the other hand, built his southern farm in 1984, at least a decade after the newest resident moved to the rural neighborhood. He constructed the northern farm in 1995 on what was then forest. (Even though there are technically two farms, state environmental officials regulate them under one permit.)

Even before the operations were built Murphy Family Farms, as it was known then, knew people lived nearby. Many of them signed a petition opposing the farms’ construction. According to court documents, Carter misled at least one resident about his plans for the property. He allegedly told Perry Miller that he was going to grow a few crops and assured him there would be no hogs.  Soon after, Miller noticed construction workers building hog houses 200 feet from his home.

[bctt tweet=”Court docs: Former #NC lawmaker Wendell Murphy tried to threaten, intimidate neighbor of industrialized hog farm” username=”NCPolicyWatch”]

The defense could argue that the area already had a history of hog farms, so adding a couple more is not out of character for the neighborhood. It’s true that Perry Miller owned hogs, but only 60, on an open pasture, not 4,700 in a concentrated feeding operation with enormous lagoons and sprayfields.

Original Plaintiffs by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Those 60 hogs, though, were unwelcome, at least by Wendell Murphy’s reckoning. Murphy, who started the the hog empire with his father, stopped by Miller’s home one day, court documents say. Murphy told Miller to get rid of the hogs that Miller was raising on his own property, and “tried to threaten and intimidate him.” (Murphy also served as a state lawmaker, during which time he got laws passed curbing counties’ authority to pass zoning ordinances regarding hog farms, as well as other industry-friendly legislation.)

In the previous trial, attorneys for Murphy-Brown implied that since the neighbors of a Bladen County industrialized farm had not complained to anyone in authority about the stench, flies and buzzards, those intrusions must have not been severe. That strategy, though, could backfire in this case. The chances that Black people could get full redress from a white police chief — in Beulaville or anywhere, let alone in the rural South — are unlikely. The chances are slimmer when the complaints are about the chief himself.

The trial continues today at the federal courthouse in Raleigh, with Judge Earl Britt presiding. It is expected to last three weeks.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.