Powerful new hog trial testimony puts Smithfield back on the defensive

Powerful new hog trial testimony puts Smithfield back on the defensive

- in Environment, Top Story

As a former police officer and firefighter, Wesley Sewell has encountered odors so putrid that they would make most people retch. He’s even ranked the smells. No. 1 “is when I had to remove burning bodies from a plane crash,” Sewell told a jury in a federal hog nuisance trial yesterday. No. 2 “is when I had to remove a person from their home who had been dead a week on the toilet. Hog feces is number three, or at least in the top five.”

Sewell is not a plaintiff, but was subpoenaed as a witness in the most recent lawsuit against the world’s largest pork producer, Murphy-Brown. Sewell grew up in the area and lives near the plaintiffs on Piney Woods Road in Pender County. And all of these Black families – the Jacobs, Messicks, Taylors and Allisons — live near, and in some cases, even closer to, Greenwood Farms. They say the 7,200-head swine operation emits the stench of feces and attracts flies and buzzards, harming the residents’ quality of life.

Greenwood farmer Dean Hilton, who is not on trial, owns the land, buildings, lagoons, sprayers, waste – and risk. Murphy-Brown, the defendant, owns the pigs and reaps the rewards. Instead of spending money to update the waste management systems, which would largely solve the odor problem, the company chooses to remove its pigs. When Murphy-Brown loses the nuisance suits, which has occurred twice since April, it “depopulates” the farms rather than clean them up. The farmer is sacrificed. Murphy-Brown moves on.

Murphy-Brown’s loss record has changed the tenor in the courtroom. A new attorney for Murphy-Brown, Jim Neale, has replaced Mark Anderson; both from legal powerhouse McGuireWoods. (Neale works out of the firm’s Charlottesville, Va., office, so it’s unlikely that the jury will hear further remarks about “out-of-state lawyers” as happened in previous cases. Michael Kaeske, the plaintiffs’ attorney, is from Texas, and has been retained by Wallace and Graham in Salisbury.)

Neale’s cross-examination technique can be pointed, sharp and adversarial, much like Anderson’s. However, Neale does exude a modicum of warmth that his predecessor lacked. Yet yesterday Neale did not have an adequate answer for Wesley Sewell: An amiable white man with a snowy horseshoe mustache, who has been married to the same woman for 44 years, who makes pound cakes from scratch for his neighbors, and whose lengthy record of public service could convince a jury to believe him when he says the neighborhood stinks.

Sewell, who has a home on Oak Island, had seen his house on Piney Woods Road only once before buying it five years ago at a foreclosure sale. Since hog farms are often hidden from the road by trees, Sewell did not know the farm was there, he said. And on that day, the property did not stink. “The wind wasn’t blowing from the right direction,” he testified. “It depends on the wind and the weather. When it’s moist and cloudy,” that’s when it stinks.

The Sewells intended to rent out the house. But his in-laws, who live about 10 minutes away became ill, so Sewell renovated the one-story brick ranch. He and his wife moved in. Photos of the Sewells’ yard demonstrated his love of the outdoors: rocking chairs on the front porch, a grill, canopy and veritable jungle of flowers and tomato plants on the back deck. 

Only because he has encountered such atrocities in his previous working life can he stomach – barely – the stench of the Greenwood Farm. That, his bottle of OdorBan and a sheaf of fly swatters. 

“There are so many flies, I’ve pretty much wore out the swatters,” Sewell testified.

(He later told the jury that he also hit a buzzard while driving his wife’s Hummer, busting the windshield.)

The odors from Greenwood Farms and the passing hog trucks sometimes invade his home, he told the jury. He has purchased air fresheners that spray a fragrant mist into the air nine times an hour. “I put them in the living room, dining room, foyer, bedroom, bathroom and laundry,” he said, “to help kill the smells.” 

Full of hog feces and urine, the open-air lagoons emit much of the odor. The spray fields can stink, too. To keep the lagoons from overflowing, hog farmers spray the waste as much as 100 feet in the air. The material in turn lands on agricultural fields, which are planted with cover crops to inhibit runoff and erosion. But some of the feces-laden mist never makes it to the ground, instead floating on the breeze, landing on neighbors’ homes, yards and gardens.

“Have you ever been to [plaintiff] Mr. Jacobs’ house?” Kaeske asked Sewell.

“Yes, I heard he had the best collards, so I would buy them from him,” Sewell replied. “But I don’t want to buy them now because of the spraying.

“At the Jacobs’ house there is a pretty bad smell,” Sewell went on. “I would not want to live there.  I wouldn’t live there, since I have another place to go.”

Like his neighbors, Sewell is on a private well. But he does not drink the water. “It smells,” he said, adding that he has to purchase bottled water. 

Unlike his neighbors, Sewell could retreat to a second home on Oak Island. But as is the case with many of these industrialized hog farms, a majority of the affected neighbors are from communities of color and/or low-income. Within a two-mile radius of Greenwood Farm, 59 percent of residents are Black and 4 percent are Latinx. A third of all households in the same area earn less than $25,000 a year. They can’t move. Unlike Sewell, they can’t afford bottled water.

Among Murphy-Brown’s defenses is that no one has complained to the farmers about the stench, flies, buzzards or truck traffic. That’s not always been true. In the last trial, the jury never got to see an official government document stating that several people had complained 30 years ago to Joey Carter about his farm in Duplin County. (Duplin County did not produce the document as part of a public records request by the plaintiffs; the defense team provided it, but only after the plaintiffs had rested their case.)

Plaintiffs in the previous trials also testified they didn’t know whom to call to complain about the nuisance. Sewell said the same thing. “I wouldn’t call the sheriff,” Sewell testified. “I’ve been a police officer. I’d be laughed at. What’s the sheriff going to do?”

Within the last three years, Sewell said, he did complain once — directly to Smithfield, which owns Murphy-Brown. Sewell testified that a Smithfield attorney visited him at his house and listened to his complaints about rancid-smelling water flowing from an adjacent parcel behind Sewell’s house onto his property.

 “I told him what color it was. I told him I know what hog waste smells like,” Sewell said. 

“Did he give a way to lodge a complaint?” Kaeske asked.

“No,” Sewell replied. “I told him the same thing about the odors that I told you today. No one came back.”

During the brief cross-examination, Neale challenged Sewell on the source of the water.

“You don’t know that water came from the hog operation do you?” Neale asked.

“During really bad rains, it smelled like hog waste,” Sewell said. “There are no ifs, ands, or buts.”

Since even before the nuisance trials began, Murphy-Brown, the NC Pork Council and several lawmakers, most notably Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County, have claimed that the plaintiffs and their attorneys don’t care about the fate of the hog farmers. They are suing only to make money.

That also is not true. In the first two trials, and now in this one, several plaintiffs, as well as Sewell, have insisted they enjoy eating ham and bacon —  and would happily live next to the hog farms,  if only the odors, flies and buzzards would go away.

“If Smithfield cleaned up the neighborhood, would you be OK with that?” Kaeske asked Sewell.

“Yes,” Sewell replied. “And I would say ‘Thank you very much.’”