Smithfield Foods, Inc., responded today to a lawsuit filed in North Carolina by two trial lawyers on behalf of Bobby Kennedy, Jr., and other self-styled environmental activists over the issue of disposal of hog waste by Smithfield’s North Carolina hog production subsidiaries.
“This is nothing but a publicity stunt designed to raise money for out-of- state ‘activist groups,’ fronted by trial lawyers looking to make millions on the backs of hog farmers,” said Richard J. M. Poulson, Vice President and Senior Advisor to the Chairman of Smithfield Foods, Incorporated. “This lawsuit is legally and factually bogus. These people have no standing to bring a lawsuit in North Carolina. They have no legal case against us and, beyond that, the best water quality experts in the country agree that the claims are based on voodoo science.”
The lawsuit seeks money damages for alleged pollution of rivers in eastern North Carolina. “Kennedy and his cohorts make the preposterous claim that the pork industry is responsible for North Carolina’s water pollution problems. Nothing could be further from the truth. As they would know if they had ever spent any time in North Carolina, rivers near hog farms are no more polluted than rivers elsewhere and some, like the Black River in the heart of hog country, are in better shape. The real culprits are municipal and industrial discharges and crop runoff,” said Poulson. In 1999, the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources identified 29 spills from hog farms, most involving discharges of less than a thousand gallons of which only a fraction reached surface waters after evaporation and absorption. In comparison, the agency found 2,294 incidents at municipal or industrial systems, resulting in hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage being discharged straight into the state’s waters.
The suit also seeks to force hog farmers to stop recycling waste onto crops. “The trial lawyers and their so-called ‘environmentalist’ clients say that North Carolina can not have both a viable hog industry and a clean environment, and their solution, represented by today’s filing, is to shut down the industry,” said Poulson. “That would be an environmental and economic disaster. The hog industry uses the same method of waste disposal required by the EPA for towns and small cities and the method recently mandated by the state of Colorado. Every one of the 2,500 hog farms in North Carolina is operating legally under permits or certifications issued by the state. It’s time to stop being dishonest with the people of North Carolina,” said Poulson.
Because there is no technology superior to the means of hog waste disposal currently in use, shutting it down would mean the end of North Carolina’s hog farming industry. “This would have a devastating domino effect on the state economy, especially east of Interstate 95 — the area hardest hit by reduction of tobacco farming and last year’s hurricanes,” said Poulson. Hog farming makes up the largest segment of the state’s agricultural economy, North Carolina’s number one industry. The pork industry produced nearly $2 billion in revenue and contributed $62 million in state and local taxes in 1998.
In spite of the activists’ filing, Smithfield’s production subsidiaries are going forward with negotiations over a far reaching plan to combat water pollution from all sources in eastern North Carolina, modeled after highly successful efforts involving the Chesapeake Bay and the Long Island Sound. “We will continue working work with knowledgeable state agencies and reputable environmental organizations who have a demonstrated concern for responsible environmental progress,” said Poulson.
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Kennedy’s lawyers refused to consider Smithfield’s conservation efforts in settlement of their claims. “The trial lawyers scoffed at us because we weren’t putting money in their pockets,” said Poulson. “They admitted that all they wanted was money and that they didn’t care if they shut down the hog industry in North Carolina to get it. That reeks of extortion and we told them so. Then they offered to arbitrate if we would waive our standing defense. We rejected that as well because we know, just as they know, that they lack standing. By now I guess they realize that we are in this fight to win,” said Poulson.
“When the so-called “environmentalists” and their trial lawyers told us that they didn’t care if the industry went out of business, we knew that this was not about water quality, but just about lawyers’ greed and out-of-state publicity,” said Poulson. “Outside interests destroyed the North Carolina tobacco farming industry and now they’ve set their sights on the family hog farm. Unlike Kennedy and his trial lawyer buddies, we care about clean water, and we care about North Carolina’s economy, too. Every small family farm in North Carolina is at risk because of the antics of these trial lawyers. Smithfield will fight this battle on behalf of the state’s farm families. This is a fight for the future of farming in North Carolina. That’s a fight worth winning.”
Smithfield, through its subsidiaries, is North Carolina’s 11th largest manufacturer and its 35th largest employer. In eastern North Carolina, 1,257 independent farmers receive a total of $158 million in annual payments from the company (over $126,000 per farmer). Employees of the company’s Tarheel Plant in Bladen County earn $135.1 million annually, providing the state with $9.5 million in income taxes. North Carolina environmental regulators recently commended that plant for setting a new standard for industrial treatment technology.