Governor stood up to pork barrel politics, but Republicans overrode his veto
RALEIGH, TROUTMAN, North Carolina––Rejecting pork barrel politics, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper on May 5, 2017 vetoed North Carolina House Bill 467, which would have limited the compensation that aggrieved homeowners can win in lawsuits against factory pig farms over stench and pollution.
On May 10, 2017 however, the North Carolina state house voted 74-40 to override Cooper’s veto. Needing 72 votes to pass, the override won support from 67 of the 74-member Republican majority and seven of the 45 Democrats.
Finalized by Senate
The veto override was on May 11, 2017 finalized by the North Carolina senate, 30-18, with all Republicans who voted supporting it and all Democrats opposed. Republicans hold 35 of the 49 North Carolina state senate seats.
The first North Carolina governor to unseat an incumbent governor since 1850, and a rare Democrat office holder in a long solidly Republican state, Cooper was the first North Carolina governor in decades, perhaps the first ever, to stand up against the multi-century dominance of agriculturally based industries which were, and are, arguably as exploitive of humans as they are of animals. But without support in the state legislature, standing up against agribusiness did not get Cooper very far.
Goons & the Klan
The history of North Carolina is a history of plantations worked by slaves, sharecroppers, and convict labor, textile mills worked by child labor, and violent repression by goons and the Ku Klux Klan of attempts to organize workers.
No sooner did the plantation and milling industries collapse than factory pig and poultry producers moved in, turning much of the state into spray fields for liquefied excretia. Never has a state––even Iowa, which produces more pigs––been so intensively and systematically shat upon, most of the poop discharged after then-Raleigh News & Observer environmental reporters Joby Warrick and Pat Stith won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for exposing the social and environmental impacts of the pork industry on rural North Carolina.
10 billion gallons of poop per year
Altogether, some 6,500 mega-barns house more than 9.5 million pigs in North Carolina, mostly in the eastern lowlands.
“Together, the pigs produce 10 billion gallons of feces and urine each year, which the operations store in large, open-air pits, euphemistically referred to as ‘lagoons,’” explained Christina Cooke in a May 9, 2017 Civil Eats exposé lauding the Cooper veto of North Carolina HB 467.
“To make sure the pits do not overflow,” Cooke continued, “the operations periodically lower their levels by shooting the fecal mixture over ‘spray fields’ of feed crops with high-pressure sprinklers.”
The volume of pig effluent is equal to 186,000 gallons per acre, if evenly sprayed over the whole of North Carolina, or 1,000 gallons per human resident. Add to that the volume of poultry and cattle effluent that is also sprayed or spread over much of the state.
This practice, a technologically more advanced version of traditional manure-spreading, is scarcely unique to North Carolina. But the hot, humid, often windy North Carolina seaboard climate helps to ensure that nearby homes are perhaps more often and more thoroughly coated with vaporized “dookey dust,” as some neighbors call this residue of “pork barrel politics.”
The “dookey dust” keeps wafting, and re-liquified pig effluent keeps running off into ditches and streams after every rainfall, because much as the slave owners bought control of the North Carolina government before the U.S. Civil War, and the tobacco and textile industries ran the state as a quasi-fiefdom for more than 100 years afterward, the pig industry tends to direct the legislature today.
Breathing poop brings “decreased quality of life”
“Scientific studies confirm that discharging animal waste into the air damages human health in the surrounding areas,” wrote Cooke. “The foul-smelling chemicals” the spraying releases, “namely ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, are associated with breathing problems, blood pressure spikes, increased stress and anxiety, and decreased quality of life.”
Among the estimated 160,000 North Carolina residents who live within a half mile of a manure pit, and the 960,000 residents who live within the three-mile range of pig effluent drift and odor, a 2014 study by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill epidemiologists found that black, Hispanic, and Native Americans outnumber Caucasians by margins of 54%, 39%, and 118%, respectively.
Human rights issue
Another way to put that is that about two-thirds of the people who are most affected by “dookey dust” are people of color. Even persons of significantly impaired color vision––or blinded by “dookey dust”––should be able to see that as a self-evident human rights issue, but human rights have not been among the demonstrated concerns of the Republican super-majority that pushed North Carolina HB 467 into law.
HB 467 will now restrict plaintiffs who successfully sue commercial hog farms, and other agricultural and forestry-related businesses, to receiving only compensation equal to the diminished sale value of their property. Plaintiffs will be excluded from “receiving compensation for damages related to health, quality of life, enjoyment of property, or lost income,” summarized Cooke.
China to benefit
HB 467 was introduced, Cooke observed, as 26 lawsuits filed in 2013 by 500 CAFO neighbors of factory pig barns owned by the Smithfield subsidiary Murphy-Brown, LLC are close to going to court.
“Rather than American farmers,” Cooke noted, “this bill stands to benefit the Chinese company WH Group, which acquired Smithfield Foods and its subsidiary Murphy-Brown, LLC in 2013, and owns the majority of the hogs in North Carolina.”
“Exploitation & Abuse at the Chicken Plant”
Cooke of Civil Eats published her exposé of pig poop pollution and pork barrel politics in North Carolina, only the most recent of dozens since Warrick and Stith won the Pulitzer, just a day after The New Yorker and ProPublica posted “Exploitation and Abuse at the Chicken Plant, by Michael Grabell, exposing different yet comparable disregard of human welfare by Case Farms, a major chicken slaughtering company headquartered in Troutman, North Carolina.
“Though Case Farms isn’t a household name,” Grabell began, “each year it produces nearly a billion pounds [of chicken meat] for customers such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, and Taco Bell. Boar’s Head sells its chicken as deli meat in supermarkets. Since 2011, the U.S. government has purchased nearly seventeen million dollars’ worth of Case Farms chicken, mostly for the federal school-lunch program.”
“Most dangerous workplaces in America”
But Grabell was not writing just another golly-gee business success story.
“Case Farms plants are among the most dangerous workplaces in America,” Grabell observed. “In 2015 alone, federal workplace safety inspectors fined the company nearly two million dollars, and in the past seven years it has been cited for 240 violations. That’s more than any other company in the poultry industry except Tyson Foods, which has more than 30 times as many employees.”
Originally a family-owned company called Case Egg & Poultry, located in Winesburg, Ohio, Case Farms before acquisition in 1986 by longtime poultry industry executive Tom Shelton “employed mostly young Amish women and Mennonites,” Grabell recounted.
“If they go home, they get shot”
But docile as the Amish and Mennonite workforce was by normal U.S. labor standards, they rebelled at the conditions Shelton imposed on them, as did U.S.-born Latino workers and even undocumented Mexicans.
Case Farms turned to hiring Guatemalan refugees.
Said then-Case Farms human resources manager Norman Beecher to Leon Fink, author of the Maya of Morganton (2003): “Mexicans will go back home at Christmas time. You’re going to lose them for six weeks. And in the poultry business you can’t afford that. You just can’t do it. But Guatemalans can’t go back home. They’re here as political refugees. If they go back home, they get shot.”
From refugees to prisoners
Eventually, though, even the Guatemalan workers balked.
“For a time, after the Guatemalan workers began to organize, Case Farms recruited Burmese refugees,” Grabell wrote. “Then it turned to ethnic Nepalis expelled from Bhutan, who today make up nearly 35% of the company’s employees in Ohio.
“Recently, Case Farms has found a more captive workforce,” Grabell added, namely prison inmates. But even the inmates are slated to lose their jobs soon, replaced by robotic deboning machines, Grabell learned.
The horror stories of human rights and occupational safety abuses that Grabell recited for 5,800 words in The New Yorker were nothing new––not in North Carolina, not in Ohio, not anywhere in the U.S. and probably not anywhere in the world that factory farming and industrial scale slaughter are practiced.
In April 2015, for instance, ANIMALS 24-7 detailed the 40-year rap sheet racked up by egg and pork barons Austin “Jack” DeCoster, 81, of Turner, Maine, and his son Peter DeCoster, 51, of Clarion, Iowa. The DeCosters had just been sentenced to serve three months each in prison and pay fines of $100,000 each for selling salmonella-contaminated eggs from their Iowa farms in 2010, causing at least 1,939 illness episodes documented by the Centers for Disease Control, and an estimated 56,000 more that went undocumented.
No time served yet
The DeCosters have yet to serve even an hour of time. Losing an appeal to the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, in January 2017 the DeCosters appealed again, this time to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Austin DeCoster had in 1976 pleaded guilty to 75 counts of having forced truckers to falsify their logs, concealing that they were working long hours; he paid a $14,000 fine.
A year later Maine Times exposed how DeCoster habitually deducted penalties and expenses from the paychecks of Vietnamese workers without prior consent or means of appeal––also allegedly part of the Case Farms modus operandi.
Child labor & virtual slavery
As at Case Farms, workers were charged inflated prices, Maine Times said, to live in company housing. DeCoster employed children as young as 9 on his farm, according to federal investigators, leading to 1979 amendments to state law adopted in order to stop him.
Meanwhile, after being fined $46,250 in 1988 for violations of Maine labor laws, DeCoster tightened security at his Maine facilities, and in 1993 was fined $15,000 for keeping as many as 100 Spanish-speaking workers in virtual slavery, prevented from leaving and from receiving visits from priests, social workers, and truant officers.
Fined another $2.5 million in 1996 for allowing unsafe working conditions that resulted in disfiguring injuries, failing to pay workers, and continued violations of child labor laws, DeCoster replaced an allegedly abusive egg farm manager with the former manager of one of his 30 Iowa hog farms–who had just been convicted of duct-taping an employee hand and foot, then beating him.
Pollution, pesticides & rape
Fined repeatedly in both Maine and Iowa during the next several years for wastewater violations and improperly handling pesticides, DeCoster in 2002 paid $1.5 million to 11 female workers at his Iowa facilities in settlement of sexual harassment charges, including rape. In 2003 DeCoster paid $2.1 million in fines and was sentenced to five years on probation for knowingly hiring 121 undocumented workers at his Iowa and Nebraska farms.
Between 2002 and 2008, DeCoster’s Maine farms were fined more than $600,000 by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for repeated and serious violations, including exposed asbestos, unsanitary showers, hazardous equipment and disregard for worker’s safety. DeCoster also ran into repeated trouble in 2006 and 2007 for again hiring undocumented workers, and in 2009 agreed to pay more than $125,000 in penalties and fees for cruelty to culled hens.
Beat the rap in cruelty case
The DeCoster-owned company Hillandale Farms, however, in January 2017 won dismissal of a similar case brought as result of an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the U.S.
(See Factory farmer Austin “Jack” DeCoster sentenced to prison––but will he really do time?)
Investigative writer Christopher Leonard in The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business (2014) extensively exposed the somewhat less obviously brutal but comparably exploitative tactics that built the Tyson poultry and pork empires, also largely on the backs of poorly educated rural people and immigrant labor.
Middle Americans after such exposés typically express shock and horror, but do little to change the animal consumption habits that keep agribusiness continually engaged in a “race to the bottom” to see who can squeeze more out of pigs, chickens, cattle, turkeys, and workers for less.
Karen Davis says
Thank you for this informative report on the poultry and pig businesses in North Carolina and the terrible businesses that preceded the advent of industrial animal farming in the state. I wonder how many of the residents who seek laws protecting themselves from the worst effects of animal agribusiness continue to consume the animals. They want the animals in their mouths but not in their backyard. Here in Maryland and Virginia, there’s a citizens’ effort to block the continuing construction of more and more chicken houses, which have been devastating and polluting the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries for decades. Yet how many of these rightfully outraged people see the connection between their own eating behavior and the environmental mess they oppose and suffer the effects of? Or, maybe they see, but do they care? The poultry industry like all of agribusiness could not care less what people think or say as long as their critics’ mouths are stuffed with the company’s products while writing angry letters to the government.
Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns. http://www.upc-online.org
Jamaka Petzak says
Hypocrisy reigns, as usual. So sad that the majority apparently don’t get it/refuse to do anything about it when “keeping us safe” is an empty joke and jumping up and down about “child labor” should start in their own back yard. My father was one of those kids who started working a man’s job at 9 years old and was permanently disfigured because of it (not in this industry). If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here. And yes, we have ancestors from N. Carolina, undoubtedly, as well as relatives who are probably being sprayed on as I write.
You are absolutely right that this is a human rights issue. I know I’m not the only reader here who knows well-educated and progressive people who are big crusaders for humanity and the environment–anti-fracking protests, hybrid vehicles, and all the rest–and yet completely refuse to look at what they’re supporting for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.