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$75-million lawsuit filed against north Mississippi hog processor, producers

Souuuuieeeeeeee turns into sue-eeeeeee

Even though more than 100 residents that live near hog farms, processing plants and meat packers in Chickasaw and Clay counties have jointly filed a class-action lawsuit in Montgomery County against a major hog processor and its growers under the nuisance law for constituting a public health and welfare concern for emission of odors and pollutants, only a couple of bills have been introduced in the House and Senate concerning swine farms. The deadline for introducing bills is Feb. 21.

The lawsuit seeks $75 million in damages from West Point-based Prestage Farms Inc. and seven of its contracted hog-growing facilities for the plaintiffs, who, among other allegations, have complained that their homes have been devalued. A similar lawsuit filed in Missouri was recently settled in favor of the plaintiffs. Last year, the state Supreme Court sided with hog-farm opponents and ruled that an Oktibbeha County farm should be subjected to air emission restrictions.

The families that filed the class action suit are backed by the California-based Sierra Club, an environmental group, that claims pollution from the sites has led to unusually high incidents of migraines, asthma and other illnesses.

The lawsuit was filed around the time a two-year moratorium expired and the Legislature is expected to propose bills to extend the statewide moratorium. Prestage Farms works with more than 50 farms in Mississippi and Alabama. A spokesperson for Prestage Farms declined comment on the lawsuit, pending legislation, future company plans or policy changes.

About 450,000 hogs are produced at nearly 80 large hog farms with permits in Mississippi, mostly located in low-income or minority communities in the central part of the state.

Jerry Cain, division chief of the environmental permit division of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), said large swine operations have become an increasingly important issue.

“In the 1998 session, legislation was passed that included a moratorium that recently ended,” Cain said. “The moratorium prohibited the department from accepting any new applications for large CAFO facilities. It also said that the department was to move forward in permitting about 35 applications that had been received prior to the moratorium being placed. Under the moratorium, we were prohibited from adopting regulation that had new citing criteria to those 35 or so facilities, but we could apply improved technology.”

In the last two years, permits have been issued to only two facilities, Cain said.

“After reviewing DEQ’s regulations and seeing that changes needed to be made, we are in the process of developing regulations for large swine facilities,” he said. “During the last two years, we have invited interested parties to comment so we can take those in consideration in developing the first draft, which we expect to come outpublicly later this year. That’s where everything was moving until last fall, when we asked the state board of health to revisit the issue of potential health effects of swine facilities. We had gone to a number of hearings, and we were continuing to hear evidence of potential health effects. When the state board of health looked at these issues a couple of years ago, scientific data available at the time indicated there was no problem. However, when the state board of health revisited it at our request, they issued a report that said even though there was no evidence of health effects regarding emissions from swine facilities, they could no longer categorically say there would not be effects. There was not enough monitoring and technical data available to Mississippi to describe levels of parameters of concern were leaving the facilities.”

The state department of health recommended regular monitoring of air pollutants around large hog farms, testing of waste lagoon effluent sprayed as fertilizer for the presence of human pathogens and a moratorium on new farms until more monitoring is in place.

“Our permit board concurred with the recommendations,” Cain said. “We are not moving forward with these applications until we get more information.”

House Bill 698, introduced by Billy Bowles (D-Houston), would simply extend the moratorium.

Senate Bill 2486, introduced by Deborah Dawkins (D-Pass Christian), would prohibit placement of a CATO within the 100-year floodplain. Dawkins could not be reached for comment and further information on the bill was unavailable at press time.

“Would the bill address barns and lagoons or spray fields, too?” Cain said. “That’s a huge difference.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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