Enough of This Pigsty

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Talk to a resident living downwind of a North Carolina hog factory and you're likely to hear tales of odors that can peel paint. In the Tar Heel state, the swine industry famously generates mountains of waste — some 19 million tons a year — and critics have long charged that the industry pollutes the air and water illegally. This week the country's biggest hog processor and producer, Smithfield Foods, is expected to be the target of a blitz of lawsuits filed by environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and a posse of class-action lawyers who are mounting an assault against the hog industry nationally.

Kennedy's lead suit claims Smithfield and its subsidiaries illegally dumped millions of pounds of untreated hog waste and other contaminants, causing "gross contamination to the waters and tributaries of the Cape Fear, Neuse, and New Rivers." Another suit charges Brown's of Carolina, a Smithfield subsidiary, with violating the Clean Water Act. And a third, to be filed in U.S. District Court, claims Smithfield's serial pollution violates the federal RICO statute (designed to be used against organized crime). In a statement to TIME, Smithfield calls the suits "totally baseless."

Smithfield contracts for and raises hogs in more than 1,500 factory farms, largely concentrated in an ecologically fragile part of the state. Thirteen counties in the central and southern coastal plain house about 8 million pigs — the majority contracted to Smithfield — and their waste is kept in open-air lagoons, where it decomposes anaerobically before being sprayed onto fields. Those fields, the lawsuits charge, can't absorb the untreated waste — an alleged "witch's brew of nearly 400 volatile organic compounds and toxic poisons" — fast enough. Some of it rains down or seeps into waterways, where it causes algal blooms, fish kills and shellfish diseases, according to the suit.

Certainly accidents happen, and things get ugly: In June 1995, 22 million gallons of hog waste spilled into tributaries leading to the New River, killing thousands of fish. And when Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999, waste from pits and lagoons was pumped into fields, which then flooded into the Tar, Neuse and Cape Fear tributaries.

Kennedy's suit doesn't specifically charge Smithfield with those horrors. But his lawyers claim that environmental lawbreaking is an "integral component of [Smithfield's] institutional culture." In 1997 a U.S. district court judge fined Smithfield $12.6 million for thousands of Clean Water Act violations; in another case, a manager pled guilty to illegally dumping toxic wastewater into the Pagan River; the state of Virginia also has a suit pending against the company alleging more than 22,000 discharge and pollution violations from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s.

In its statement Smithfield says, "We view this round of allegations by the trial lawyers as self-serving and completely unfounded... The company is fully prepared to defend its good name and solid reputation in the proper venue, which is the court and not in the media."

Kennedy and his lawyers are planning for a long fight. In the months ahead, they say they'll file hundreds of suits nationwide against the company and other hog operations. "People have been waiting years for government to step in," he says. "They've come to the conclusion that government isn't going to help." Now, he says, it's time for the lawyers.