It usually happens a few times every legislative session: at some point during their annual stay in the state capital, North Carolina lawmakers come to a bellwether moment or two at which they provide a full expression of who they are and what they stand for. Sometimes, these moments are about race; sometimes they are about human rights or civil liberties; sometimes they are about basic questions of environmental sustainability; and sometimes they are about the clash of human beings and corporations.
Recently, we arrived at one such moment that arguably relates to all four categories. It happened when lobbyists for one of the state’s most powerful and frequently destructive industries prevailed upon conservative leaders in the state Senate to insert some significant new law changes into a previously innocuous bill. The changes would alter the relationship between industrial hog factories (“farms” seems much too genteel of a term to describe these massive and grim operations) and the mostly powerless people of limited means (many of them people of color) who tend to live nearby.
As Policy Watch environmental reporter Lisa Sorg has reported here, here and here, legislators are seeking to make it much more difficult for individuals and families injured by the overpowering and life-degrading output of these massive, corporate-controlled operations – the stench, the airborne fecal matter, the insect swarms, the buzzards, the truckloads of hog carcasses – to bring common law nuisance suits against the multinational corporations that control them. The action is in direct response to a series of lawsuits brought against the pork giant, Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of the Chinese corporate behemoth known as the WH Group.
The bill passed a first vote in the Senate with ease last week and, after some additional amendments, a final vote last night. It now moves to the House. If the matter becomes law (Gov. Cooper could well issue a veto), it will constitute an extraordinary moment in modern state politics. Not only will the government of North Carolina have explicitly and directly cast its lot with giant, foreign-owned corporations to the disadvantage of some of its more vulnerable – almost exclusively native-born – residents, it will have done so in direct derogation of what even the ideological right has long informed us is one of the most basic foundations of a free society – the right of property owners to control and enjoy their own land.
Think about it: what could be more fundamental to property ownership than the right to be free to enjoy it without the interference of nearby property owners?
Sure, there are obvious limits to this principle. In a state of 10 million souls, it‘s impossible and unreasonable to expect that neighbors should tiptoe around at all times and/or avoid every single uninvited interaction with neighbors. What’s more, odors and dusts from farming are and have long been unavoidable in rural areas.
All that said, the situations confronting the property owners and tenants living near the hog factories in question are not the kind of run-of-the-mill situations that have long confronted people living near family farms. Notwithstanding the attempts of bill defenders to portray them as such, the hog producers in question are not the farmers of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”
As Sorg’s stories have done such a fine job of explaining, these industrial hog operations involve hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of animals living in confined spaces and producing truly remarkable quantities of liquid and airborne waste.
Not only is the right of neighbors to the enjoyment of their own property grievously injured, their very health and wellbeing is badly impinged upon and endangered in one of the most stomach-turning ways one can imagine.
Interestingly and to his credit, this was the essence of the argument advanced in a Senate committee last week in the testimony of former State Rep. Paul Stam of Wake County. Even Stam, a man who has frequently championed ultra-right causes to the disadvantage of minorities, human rights and the natural environment, grasped the hypocrisy of favoring corporate hog operations in the instant matter.
As Stam and other critics of the legislation have noted, standing against the practices of the industrialized hog industry doesn’t mean one is against hog farming. In Missouri, criticism and lawsuits of the kind underway in North Carolina helped push hog giant Smithfield to spend the necessary cash to transform a giant facility into a model of environment- and neighbor-friendly operations. The problem can, in other words, be addressed.
Unfortunately – at least for the present – it does not look as if Stam’s traditionalist take on property rights will prevail. Unless some sort of a sea change arises at the General Assembly, North Carolina lawmakers seem fully prepared to embrace once again what one might describe as the Trumpian take on property rights – namely, that he or she who has the most property has the most rights.