RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina lawmakers are taking steps to protect the world's largest pork producer from lawsuits accusing its subsidiaries of creating unbearable animal waste odor.
The 2014 lawsuits by about 500 rural neighbors of massive hog farms allege that clouds of flies and intense smells remain a problem nearly a quarter-century since industrial-scale hog farming took off.
The smells can spark headaches and infuse households, they complain. Wind-driven spray has been known to coat a home's exterior in liquefied excrement, some said. The smell clings to clothes.
With the cases against U.S. subsidiaries of the Chinese pork giant heading toward a possible trial as early as this summer, legislators are now proposing to sharply limit penalties that a jury or judge could impose.
Legislation would protect hog farms or other agricultural operations accused of creating a nuisance for neighbors by limiting the liability of an operation to the lost property value plaintiffs can prove was the result of the nuisance.
The state House on Thursday gave its preliminary approval to the legislation.
The federal lawsuits primarily target Murphy-Brown LLC, the North Carolina-based hog production division of Virginia's Smithfield Foods. Smithfield was bought in 2013 by a division of China-based WH Group, the world's largest pork producer.
The Chinese company's subsidiaries need protection from the ongoing lawsuits, or others that might follow, because the companies that own the animals are inextricably linked to their network of contract farmers who raise them, said Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican and former hog and turkey grower who represents the heart of the state's swine country.
"They are interconnected in a manner in which what helps one helps the other, what hurts one hurts the other," said Dixon, the legislation's primary sponsor.
Malodourous swine smells are rare, said Dixon. He blamed the latest legal attack against the industry's disposal methods on money-grubbing lawyers looking for a big payday, academics, urbanites and animal-rights activists who "hear these squeaking wheels that want to put us out of business."
Hogs were a $21 billion industry nationwide in 2015, with North Carolina operations racking up $2.3 billion of that, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
The proposed law in the country's No. 3 hog state by gross income recalls that politically powerful pork producers in the 1990s shaped laws to foster high-density hog production despite the environmental and health risks of the waste disposal systems. The predominant waste-handling method has changed little since then.
It involves using lots of water to regularly wash out farm buildings holding hogs, animals that generate prodigious amounts of waste. It's collected in cesspools, where bacteria break it down, and the flowing remains are sprayed through high-pressure sprayers onto acres of farm fields. The droplets can radiate smells and be carried by winds.
North Carolina pork producers are only now deploying less-smelly methods like spraying closer to the ground via hoses dragged behind tractors, but the traditional method prevails, North Carolina State University agricultural engineering professor Garry Grabow said.
"One reason is the cost of changing systems that currently 'work,'" said Grabow, an expert in land application of animal wastewater.
Don Webb of Stantonsburg, a former hog farmer, said he opposes limiting the liability of the hog farms because that would shut out people who can't afford lawyers to advocate for them.
"I'm a human being and I'm an American. And Americans should not have to smell someone else's feces and urine. And that's what they want to force me (to do) with this bill," said Webb, who is among the plaintiffs.
However, hog growers say they want farm nuisance lawsuits disarmed because they're already thoroughly regulated.
"We don't need this type of thing, these nuisance suits hitting us," said Jeff Spedding, who was honored by the state's pork trade association for environmental stewardship for his nearly 4,000-head operation near the Duplin County town of Magnolia. "As farmers, we work very, very hard trying to be good neighbors, good for our community."