Last week saw a moment of unusual drama in a federal trial on the liability of corporate hog farms for ongoing assaults on their neighbors’ health and prosperity.
It was midway through a hearing in front of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. The case was McKiver v. Murphy-Brown, the latest in a series of high-profile cases in which hundreds of mostly poor, rural, minority residents of eastern North Carolina have sued the world’s largest hog producer for damages to their families’ lives and property.
The judge was the Honorable J. Harvie Wilkinson III, an experienced federal judge appointed to the courts by President Ronald Reagan. Here’s what Judge Wilkinson told the courtroom during questioning of attorneys in the case:
“What troubled me as I looked at the complaint and at trial [transcripts]. Yes, the hog farming certainly provides many jobs in eastern North Carolina. It’s important to the economy and national food supply. But it’s harmful to the people who live nearby. It’s got to be environmental harmful to the waterways. Nobody wants another Flint, Michigan. It can’t be good for children’s respiratory systems.”
He continued, “If this were my property I’d be outraged at some of these conditions that were allowed to persist. Less fortunate citizens have property rights, too. They have a right to good health and enjoyment of their property. If this were some McMansion surrounding hog farming operations, or houses of the affluent and more politically powerful were here, wouldn’t these conditions have been cleared up sooner rather than later? That is my problem.”
The answer to that is clearly yes.
That was clearly the problem from the jury’s point of view too. It’s the problem for a lot of people across North Carolina who have watched the the corporate hog industry’s abuses mounting for decades, while it has been protected from accountability by misguided decisions of the General Assembly.
Poor, rural farm neighbors and public health advocates around our state, including NCLCV, are pulling for the courts to hammer home this message hard — and for our legislators to start protecting people instead of polluters.