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March 06, 2001
Smithfield Sued for Letting Pig Manure Out of the Poke
Environmental group says litigation is needed to stop hog producers from polluting waterways.
A coalition of environmental and family farming groups has filed three lawsuits against Smithfield
Foods (ticker: SFD), the world's largest hog
producer and pork processor. The lawsuits allege Smithfield has violated environmental laws by
allowing hog waste to contaminate North Carolina rivers and streams.
is being led by the Water Keeper Alliance, an environmental group headed by Robert Kennedy Jr., son
of the assassinated senator. Participants in the coalition include the Sierra Club, the National
Farmers' Union and the Animal Welfare Institute.
The coalition says that the federal
government is not enforcing its own regulations, mostly because the Environmental Protection Agency
does not have enough resources due to budget cuts. "This collapse of environmental enforcement has
allowed corporate hog factories to proliferate with huge pollution-based profits," Kennedy said
when the intention to sue was announced in December. "The failure of government has forced us to
find champions outside the regulatory community," he added.
The coalition has recruited a
powerful team of attorneys to take the case. They are not run-of-the-mill barristers; some of them
have experience in suing, successfully, the asbestos and tobacco industries.
Carolina's hog population has exploded over the past 15 years, growing faster there than any other
state in the U.S. Since 1987 the number of hogs in the state has risen from 2.6 million to 10
million, a 285 percent increase. The majority of this increase is due to the proliferation of
factory-style hog farms, where hogs are packed in football field-sized warehouses. One warehouse
can house 800 to 1,000 hogs.
The lawsuits target how the manure is treated and disposed.
Hogs produce three times more waste than humans. In North Carolina, hogs produce 19 million tons
of feces and urine a year, or over 50,000 tons every single day. This manure is usually collected
it in open-air pits, called lagoons, where it is treated. Environmental groups say the treatment
is minimal compared to the process used for human waste. Once the waste has been treated, it is
sprayed on land as fertilizer.
Worker error and heavy rainstorms have caused spillage from
the waste lagoons into waterways. According to the lawsuits, the spills have resulted in fish
kills and poisoned rivers, underground aquifiers and soil.
Much could be at stake for
Smithfield, which has responded strongly to the suits. Smithfield's annual hog production is
approximately 12 million animals, and its sales in the previous fiscal year totaled $5.2 billion.
Richard J. Poulson, Smithfield vice president, said "[These lawsuits] are about the social
agenda of a group of unelected, unaccountable trial lawyers who want to override the legal and
regulatory framework, substitute their own personal desires and financial interests for the wishes
of the people, and enrich themselves at the hands of the pork industry and ultimately the American
Poulson also said every one of Smithfield's hog farms uses state-of-the-art
waste disposal technologies, and is subject to a zero-tolerance standard for waste discharge. He
also said that in North Carolina in 2000, there were 14 accidental discharges of treated water that
reached state waters, totaling approximately 125,000 gallons.
Factory-style hog facilities
have generated controversies other than water pollution. The National Farmers' Union says that the
factories are driving family farms out of business, and the Animal Welfare Institute claims that
the treatment of hogs is "nothing short of barbaric." Residents living near hog facilities have
complained about the foul stench and worry about the value of their properties falling.
If the lawsuits are successful, Smithfield may have to pay substantial amounts of money for
cleanup as well as injury and punititive damages. That would be a hard way to learn that superior
environmental and social business practices are the best strategy for increasing company value over
the long term.
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