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National Perspective | ENVIRONMENT

U.S.' Top Hog Processor Accused of Planned Pollution in Lawsuit

March 01, 2001|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Environmental groups on Wednesday hit the nation's biggest hog processor with a racketeering lawsuit accusing the company of deliberately fouling water, air and soil as part of a strategy to drive competing small farmers out of business.

The lawsuit accuses Smithfield Foods Inc., which churns out 6 billion pounds of meat a year, of lowering its production costs by flouting federal and state environmental laws. By polluting, rather than treating its waste, Smithfield is able to produce pork so cheaply that independent farmers can't compete, the suit alleges.

In filing a case under RICO, the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the environmentalists are seeking to hold Smithfield and its top executives financially responsible for the environmental and economic harm its business practices allegedly caused. They are asking a court to award triple damages--three times the amount of actual harm.

Smithfield Vice President Richard J.M. Poulson responded with a furious statement calling the case "extortion by litigation" and "a gross perversion of our legal system."

Poulson defended Smithfield's waste-disposal system as "state-of-the-art" and said the company's farms adhered to a "strict zero-tolerance standard for environmental discharge."

The environmentalists' charges of massive pollution "are exaggerated beyond belief," agreed Stephen Cohen, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council.

But the lawsuits were welcomed by activists in nearly a dozen states who have long railed against the "factory farms" that confine thousands of hogs in a single barn and pipe their manure to huge open-air lagoons.

The biggest hog lots can produce more waste than millions of people, but unlike cities, they are not required to build sewage treatment plants. Instead, they collect the manure and urine in lagoons, then spray it on crops as fertilizer.

From Utah to Missouri to North Carolina to Mississippi, rural residents who live near the big farms complain that the lagoons give off rank odors, that the manure fouls rivers and that the corporations drive independent farmers into bankruptcy.

The groups supporting Wednesday's lawsuits hint at the depth of local rage: Along with well-known national organizations such as the Sierra Club and Humane Society, there were at least a dozen grass-roots coalitions with names like People Opposed to Ruining Kansas or Families Against Rural Messes.

"I promise you this: We will march across this country and we will bring these kind of lawsuits against every single pork factory in America if we have to," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Water Keeper Alliance and a leader in the legal campaign against Smithfield.

Many, if not all, big hog operations already have been tested by legal action.

Smithfield Foods, for instance, in 1997 drew the largest civil penalty ever assessed for violations of the Clean Water Act--a $12.6-million fine. It was also ordered to pay $3.8 million for about 22,000 pollution violations in Virginia.

The nation's second-largest pork producer, Premium Standard Farms, in 1999 settled an environmental lawsuit in Missouri by agreeing to spend $25 million to study technology that could reduce pollution.

On a smaller scale, hog lots in several states have compensated neighbors who sued to recover the losses they incurred when the pigs moved in and their property values sank.

Such cases have sparked some tinkering with the way corporations handle hog waste. But their basic model of lagoons and spray fields has remained intact. The racketeering lawsuit, filed in federal court in Tampa, Fla., aims to force systemic change by insisting that big hog lots treat their waste the way an industrial factory or a city would before releasing it into the environment.

There's just one hitch: Hog lots are not considered factories or cities. They're classified as farms. And as such, they're not required by law to build waste treatment plants.

"The courts thus far have been reluctant to be too critical of confinement factories as long as they're doing what's required by state or federal law," said Neil Harl, an agricultural analyst at Iowa State University.

Aside from occasional spills, most big farms are doing what their permits allow. As Harl put it: "It's hard to surmount that kind of defense."

Pork producers argue as well that nostalgia for the "good old days" of family farms is misplaced. The nation has moved on, they argue; the industrial revolution has come to agriculture.

When consumers buy pork chops, they expect the meat to look and taste a certain way. They want it to be lean and cheap. The corporate system of genetically engineering pigs and breeding them in confinement lots was developed to meet that demand.

These "generally accepted methods of production," Cohen said, are used not only by big corporations, but by many independent family farmers as well.

"Mr. Kennedy and his cohort of contingency-fee lawyers have declared war on an industry that constitutes a way of life across the country," Poulson added.

Ten major class-action law firms have each pledged $50,000 to get that battle rolling. And they'll ante up more if need be, Kennedy said: "Whatever it takes to win."

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