Lawyers Targeting Pig, Dairy Farms

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Lawyers Targeting Pig, Dairy Farms

[Ed. Note: This article declares that "livestock agriculture can be a nuisance to neighbors." We know that from just the environmental point of view, livestock agriculture's runoff can be deadly to "neighbors."]

By Seth Slabaugh on TheStarPress.com

Livestock agriculture contributes more than $2.5 billion in cash receipts to the Indiana economy each year. But one of the downsides is that livestock agriculture can be a nuisance to neighbors.

Attorneys seek justice for neighbors allegedly injured by large operations.

Neighbors who are fed up living next door to factory farms have found three high-powered trial lawyers who vow to make Randolph County "ground zero" in a legal food fight over how Indiana produces pork and milk.

Highly aggressive flies, harmful odors, stacks of dead animals and mismanagement of millions of gallons of manure are among the complaints of neighbors suing pork and dairy producers.

The trial lawyers are bringing multiple lawsuits challenging Indiana's industrial or factory model of producing milk and pork in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) promoted by Gov. Mitch Daniels' agriculture department.

It's a system that produces odors so intense that neighbors are suffering skin irritations, nausea, headaches, breathing difficulties, tightness of the chest, sinus infection, stress, burning eyes, noses and throats and other ailments, the lawsuits allege.

"There is a lot of discontent," said Indianapolis attorney Rich Hailey, a former president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, now known as the American Association for Justice (AAJ). "We anticipate the potential filing of a dozen more cases in a short period of time."

The defendants include Vreba Hoff Dairy, an Ohio-based firm that has brought large Dutch dairy farms to Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan; Maxwell Foods/Maxwell Farms, a leading, North Carolina-based pork producer that has been expanding into Indiana; Harrisburg, Pa.-based pork producer Country View Family Farms, and various local operators.

Most of the cases are being filed in Randolph County, though one is being filed in federal court in Indianapolis.

Hailey specializes in assisting law firms nationwide as local or co-counsel. In this case, his firm is assisting Richard Middleton, another former president of AAJ from Savannah, Ga., and Kansas City attorney Charles Speers, who has won nuisance judgments against large livestock farms in other states.

Middleton said environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the president of Waterkeeper Alliance, encouraged him to get involved in the fight against factory farms, which are "a tremendous insult to the environment and to the neighbors."

AAJ's mission includes providing justice to people injured by deliberate misconduct and deterring future misconduct by holding wrongdoers accountable. Other cases tackled by the organization include workplace safety, asbestos, toy safety, the Ford Firestone fiasco, the Ku Klux Klan, prescription drugs and health maintenance organizations.

The Randolph County plaintiffs include William and Linda Neudecker, Richard and Barbara Pegg, Curtis and Rachel Ramer, Allen and Judy Hutchison, Michael and Connie Armstrong, Larry and Jette Dungan, Jimmy Cook, Ralph Dalzell Sr. and Jr., Loretta Miller and Kathryn Petty.

They seek actual damages to compensate them for the "interference of their right to the use and quiet enjoyment" of their properties. They also are asking for punitive damages to punish the defendants and to "deter others from like conduct."

Joe Baldwin, an operations manager for Maxwell, declined comment. Vreba-Hoff spokeswoman Cecilia Conway also declined comment, saying she hasn't seen any lawsuit yet. The Indiana State Department of Agriculture also declined comment.

"Indiana Farm Bureau (IFB) just doesn't feel comfortable commenting about something that hasn't happened yet," said spokeswoman Kathleen Dutro.

Delivering his annual address at IFB's annual convention last month in Fort Wayne, IFB President Don Villwock said the practices of both grain and livestock farmers are "coming under fire."

"We cannot just give lip service to protecting our streams, to preventing manure spills or to being a good neighbor," he was quoted as saying.

Under Daniels, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture is committed to revitalizing Indiana's livestock industry, which has seen growth in nearly all sectors after decades of decline.

Randolph County has been one of the leaders in Indiana in hog-barn construction in recent years. An ethanol plant also has been built in Randolph County. Biofuels production is another goal of the Daniels administration, along with increased hardwood tree production and manufacturing.

Livestock agriculture contributes more than $2.5 billion in cash receipts to the Indiana economy each year.

But one of the downsides is that livestock agriculture can be a nuisance to neighbors.

The Maxwell and Vreba Hoff facilities named in the lawsuits each produce millions of gallons of manure, urine, afterbirth and other hazardous substances annually. The substances are stored in deep pits below the hog barns and in a lagoon adjacent to the dairy barn.

The manure is eventually land applied to farm fields as fertilizer, which the lawsuits say spreads the odor far beyond the farms.

The lawsuits also complain of leakage and spillage of manure onto neighbors' properties, as well as the composting of dead animals in piles, causing more foul odors.

One of the hog farms has spilled manure on public roads, causing plaintiff Jette Dungan's car "to become fouled with hog waste as she drove through it at night," one lawsuit alleges.

The defendants allegedly did not acquire sufficient land on which to spread their manure and allegedly designed and constructed manure management systems that exacerbate rather than reduce odors.

The lawsuits also claim the defendants failed to take steps to reduce their foul and noxious-smelling odors through the implementation of "reasonable and readily available technologies."

An example of those technologies, Middleton said, is manure digesters that generate digester gas that is burned as fuel to make electricity.