Fighting Back Against Illegal Swine Waste

Fighting Back Against Illegal Swine Waste

By Jessica Culpepper, Food Safety and Health Attorney

Aerial View of Stantonsburg Swine Facility with Contentnea Creek in background.

There’s big money to be made operating an industrial swine feeding operation, especially if you don’t much care whether the excrement from 4,800 pigs – about the amount of excrement produced by a town of 14,000 people – illegally ends up in the public waterways. So here’s a thought: who ends up bearing the cost of that pollution (hint: it’s not the industry)? And what can a community do about it?

In the case of a community that has suffered for decades from living next to raw swine sewage flowing down their waterways, you push back. On behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance and The Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, Public Justice’s Food Safety and Health Project and Davis & Whitlock, P.C. issued a Notice of Intent to Sue the owners and operators of Stantonsburg Farm, Inc., an industrial swine feeding operation, to stop illegal discharges of swine waste into groundwater, wetlands and streams that flow to the Contentnea Creek and Neuse River watersheds. A critical thing to take note of here is that the owners and operators that we’re noticing aren’t some small family farm, but rather, the real money and effort behind much of the blighted eastern North Carolina landscape right now: Smithfield subsidiaries Murphy-Brown, LLC and Murphy Family Ventures.  

For those who may not have heard of these infamous corporations, Murphy-Brown is the livestock production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, Inc. You know Smithfield, right? Smithfield and Murphy-Brown are the world’s largest producer of hogs and certainly the biggest players in North Carolina hog production. The same companies currently dumping and burying the bodies of pigs infected with Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus in shallow groundwater zones. And you know, the companies that were the target of an undercover investigation revealing brutal violence against hogs in Virginia. Smithfield is also the newest member of Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd., the largest shareholder of China’s biggest meat processor and also a major contributor to China’s recent and very serious food safety problems. If you don’t remember, Shuanghui is the company that admitted it had blended a banned carcinogenic additive into its pig feed.  

And if you think those issues have nothing to do with Stantonsburg, think again. In the 2012 Smithfield proxy’s section on related party transactions, the filing lists what journalist Michelle Leder described as “a cornucopia of transactions between Smithfield executives, board members, their family members and the company” itself, including Stantonsburg. The proxy itself states that “Wendell H. Murphy, Jr. and Wendy Murphy Crumpler, Mr. Murphy’s daughter, each have a …50-percent interest in Stantonsburg Farm, Inc. to which we made payments of …$508,000…and from which we received reimbursement payments of …$0…”

By the way, “Mr. Murphy” in that proxy refers to Wendell H. Murphy, Sr., founder of Murphy Family Ventures (owned by Smithfield now), Smithfield Board Member (he made $162K off that in 2011), and former NC Democratic House Representative who passed, according to the News and Observer, which won the Pulitzer for Public Service for this, a series of laws that favored his hog business interests and opened the doors for unregulated hog production in NC. A great example of this was Murphy’s 1991 legislation exempting large-scale hog farms from local zoning regulations.

We know that almost every aspect of hog production at Stantonsburg Farm is managed and operated by Shuaghui/Smithfield subsidiary Murphy-Brown, and whose President is Wendell Jr., manager of Murphy Family Ventures. Given that, let’s talk about what what’s going on at this facility.  

The term “farm” in Stantonsburg Farm is a loose use of that word. Over the past few decades, the number of hogs raised in North Carolina – particularly the coastal plain of North Carolina – has dramatically increased. In fact, there are approximately 500 industrial swine facilities housing roughly 1.8 million animals in the Neuse River watershed. Coupled with this trend was a tremendous shift toward consolidation, meaning that there was a dramatic decrease in smaller more traditional farms, leading to gigantic, factory-like facilities that confine thousands of hogs in barren, cement-filled warehouses.  

Actually it’s not factory-like at all. It is a factory, plain and simple. Hence the term “industrial swine feeding operation” and not “pig farm.” Stantonsburg is exactly that, housing 4,800 swine – more than 6 times the number of people in Stantonsburg, N.C. – in an industrial complex upstream from a small community.

But unlike other factories, that require massive waste regulation and water treatment for discharges, industrial swine feeding operations are allowed to simply spray their waste out of hoses onto the ground. In Stantonsburg’s case, the raw manure and other waste produced by those 4,800 swine is sprayed straight onto the ground far above the amount needed for fertilizing crops. The swine waste, containing pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other pollutants, then seeps into the groundwater and runs off into tributaries of the Contentnea Creek and Neuse River watersheds causing fish kills, endangering swimmers, promoting blooms of toxic algae, and contaminating drinking water.

Raw swine waste discharged from the Stantonsburg Facility into tributary to Contentnea Creek. The pink tint of the water indicates the presence raw swine waste in the tributary to Contentnea Creek.

The real sticker is that NC claims that these factories don’t discharge at all and so requires no treatment of the raw manure before it ends up dumped on the ground.

The Stantonsburg industrial swine feeding operation has a long history of illegal discharges and waste management problems. Neighbors have had to endure sickening odors and watch raw sewage flow from the facility down the waterways that pass through or by their properties. It’s so bad, in fact, that they are part of a group of lawsuits on behalf of nearly 600 residents against Smithfield/Murphy-Brown hog operations for odor and nuisance.

It is long past time to hold the corporations truly responsible for the costs of this unsustainable hog production on the animals, environment, and local community.  When this facility dumps its manure onto the ground, causing it to discharge into the tributaries, they are violating the Clean Water Act and pushing the costs of pollution control onto the environment and the community. We intend to keep pushing back.

Read the press release on the Waterkeeper Alliance website.

View more photos on the Waterkeeper Alliance’s flickr page.

Photo Credit: Both Photos CC by Waterkeeper Alliance Inc.

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