1996Public Service

Pork Barrels

Who's In Charge
Pat Stith and Joby Warrick
N&O Staff Writers
February 26, 1995

Big pork pumps tens of thousands of dollars into North Carolina political campaigns. Some key officeholders are hog producers themselves.

During the N.C. State - Maryland basketball game at Reynolds Coliseum on Jan. 22, Gov. Jim Hunt, left, talks with longtime friend Wendell Murphy. Murphy, a former legislator, owns the nation's biggest hog operation. (N&O photo by Robert Willett)

You don't have to look hard to spot the pork industry's connections in North Carolina politics and government. Just start at the top.

U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a Republican who leads a congressional subcommittee on the environment, is a wealthy hog farmer.

Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt is the top recipient of political contributions from Wendell H. Murphy, whose Duplin County hog company is the biggest in the nation.

The chairman of the environment committee in the state House, Republican John M. Nichols, is building a large hog operation in Craven County and will raise pigs for Murphy.

The chairman of the Senate committee on environment and agriculture, Democrat Charles W. Albertson of Duplin County, is a friend of Murphy's, and -- judging from contributions -- the pork industry's favorite legislator.

Murphy himself, a former Democratic state senator, is honorary chairman of the Jim Graham Committee, a group working to raise $5 million for scholarships in the name of North Carolina's agriculture commissioner.

And Murphy and the governor are friends from their student days at N.C. State University. Murphy's seats at Wolfpack home games are next to Hunt's.

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To people with grievances against big pork, the alliances look like a power bloc.

"We have not found a sympathetic ear anywhere," said Robert Morgan of Lillington, a former U.S. senator who represents plaintiffs in four lawsuits against large-scale hog farms.

"The state is looking at this as just the greatest opportunity for Eastern North Carolina," said Morgan, who also is a former state attorney general. "I think what it's going to do is drive industry away."

That opinion couldn't be further from the way Jim Hunt and Jim Graham view the hog industry. They see pig production as the force that's keeping jobs and money in counties where tobacco and other crops are fading.

"If people are going to continue to live on farms, there will have to be some additional enterprises," Hunt said in an interview last week. "Hogs have turned out to be a good one for a lot of areas."

Hunt and the agriculture commissioner both are working to keep the momentum going. For instance, while residents were rallying in Duplin County last month to fight a proposal for a new slaughterhouse, Graham and Hunt were meeting with the packing company's top executive to find out how they could talk the plant into coming here.

Graham said he and Hunt had breakfast with Bob Peterson, chief executive officer of IBP Inc., the Nebraska-based company that's looking at slaughterhouse sites including Duplin County and southern Virginia. North Carolina needs the slaughterhouse, Graham said, to boost wholesale prices for small farmers as well as big producers.

"I know some people won't like it, but it'll mean a lot to our state in the years ahead," the commissioner said.

By some estimates, the slaughterhouse would allow hog producers to increase their sales in North Carolina by up to 4 million animals a year. Production in 1994 was close to 12 million, nearly double the 1991 figure.

"I'd like to have another 4 million hogs and be assured that they can be raised in an environmentally sound way," Hunt said.

The IBP story illustrates how active state leaders have been in encouraging the growth of hog production.

The explosion of hogs in the past four years grew out of cooperative research by the Agriculture Department, N.C. State University and pork producers. It was triggered partly by construction of another big slaughterhouse, which also happened under protest from environmentalists and local residents, and which also got backing from state officials who wanted more jobs.

But the expansion came at a cost.

In stories published during the past week, The News & Observer has documented a number of problems resulting from the hog revolution. One is pollution: New research shows that leakage is coming from some of the state's more than 2,400 hog wastewater lagoons -- specifically, older ones without clay or synthetic liners.

North Carolina, with the fastest-growing hog industry in the nation, imposes fewer restrictions than other big pork states. It barely enforces regulations that are on the books.

State Rep. Howard Hunter, who has pushed for stricter regulations, tried and failed two years ago to get legislative approval for tougher rules on hog waste. He's back this session with a plan to give counties the authority to zone large hog farms.

"A lot of emphasis is being placed on the fact that the state of North Carolina is quickly becoming the No. 1 pork producer," said Hunter, a Democrat from Murfreesboro in Eastern North Carolina. "That looks good to agricultural leaders, especially those in the pork industry, but no one is giving a damn about the population's health."

Hunt said he doesn't think hog farms are threatening water quality. Despite the recent findings about lagoons that leak, the governor said he wants to wait for the state Division of Environmental Management to carry out a comprehensive study to find out if private wells are being polluted.

That study, just under way, will take two years.

"We have to have lagoons that are safe, that don't leak," Hunt said. "I just assumed that we had them, that what we had was working OK. And I don't believe it's been proved yet that it's not."

Environmental defeat

Those two interests -- economic development and environmental protection -- hung in the balance four years ago when Smithfield Foods Inc. picked a site on the Cape Fear River downstream from Fayetteville for a new slaughter plant -- the largest in the world.

That time, there was no question which side the state was on. And the slaughterhouse won.

The packing plant was a top priority for North Carolina hog companies, which needed additional slaughtering capacity in order to expand. Murphy, Prestage, Carroll's and Browns of Carolina worked hard to woo Smithfield, and they promised the company they would find a suitable site on the Cape Fear, court records show.

But first Smithfield had to obtain state approval to discharge up to 3 million gallons of treated waste a day into the river. The company had a history of environmental problems, including a $1.2 million fine for water pollution in Virginia -- a national record.

Also, the section of the river where the plant was to be located was listed as being "at or near capacity" for absorbing industrial wastes, a state Division of Environmental Management report said.

But with hundreds on new jobs at stake, the administration of former Gov. Jim Martin moved quickly to remove potential obstacles. Environmental agencies put Smithfield's permit application on a fast track. And then, eliminating the biggest hurdle of all, the state skipped the step of requiring a detailed study of the plant's potential impact on the river.

One former DEM environmental engineer, Jim Kennedy, found the decision so baffling that he wrote his old boss to demand an explanation.

"If this case does not merit an EIS [environmental impact statement], it is hard to imagine a situation where an EIS would be done," Kennedy wrote in a January 1991 letter to the DEM's Water Quality section chief.

George Everett, then the director of the environmental management division, defended the decision in an April 1991 memorandum, saying adequate safeguards were in place to prevent serious pollution problems.

"I believe Smithfield is capable of operating the plant in compliance with the waste limits," Everett wrote.

The Carolina Food Processing plant now is in its third year and growing by the month. An expansion will soon push the daily slaughtering capacity to 32,000 hogs. The plant provides jobs for 2,000 people who drive from as far away as Lumberton to butcher hogs at wages that start at $5.75 an hour.

But the slaughterhouse hasn't done as well at meeting environmental standards. The Division of Environmental Management has slapped a total of $41,000 in fines on the company for various water quality violations.

In its first year and a half of operation, the plant exceeded its discharge limits for fecal coliform bacteria, ammonia nitrogen or some other contaminant virtually every month, according to the plant's own reports.

For much of that period, Carolina Foods was protected from fines and lawsuits for water violations under the terms of a 1993 consent decree. Since the court order expired in May 1994, the company's self-monitoring reports have shown no further violations.

Challenging the patterns

In Duplin County, people who are preparing to fight the IBP slaughterhouse claim that state and local leaders are part of a powerful alliance that includes the hog industry and other agricultural interests.

"We have a political process in which everything is operated under controlled conditions," said Derl Walker, a Republican county commissioner who angered other members of the Democrat-controlled board by leaking the news about IBP's search for a plant site.

"You can't find out what is happening because everybody else is working to keep control in the hands of a few people," Walker said.

Others who have been fighting the hog industry say they have no doubt that the government is on the hog industry's side.

Groups such as the Alliance for a Responsible Swine Industry, a coalition of environmental and neighborhood groups from more than 20 counties, point out the industry's political clout at every opportunity.

Don Webb, president of the alliance, has a file cabinet of documents and clippings showing relationships between government agencies and agribusiness.

To Webb, a ruddy-faced giant of a man who has become a self-styled Prophet Jeremiah railing against the swine industry, the connections are nothing less than a betrayal of the democratic system.

"When our government puts the economy before justice for the people, they are compromising justice," said Webb, a former hog farmer from Wilson County.

A primary target of Webb's group is Lauch Faircloth, North Carolina's junior U.S. senator.

Faircloth is a part-owner of Coharie Farms, the nation's 30th largest pork producer. Coharie owns, or controls through contracts, more than 40 farms in North Carolina. Faircloth also owns stock in the state's two major slaughterhouses.

The Republican senator has been challenged publicly about whether his hog interests conflict with his new job as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Clean Water, Wetlands, Private Property and Nuclear Safety. Last week, the Senate Ethics Committee -- which investigated at Faircloth's request -- said the senator had no conflict of interest.

Faircloth also has been embroiled in a controversy over an Oct. 27 letter he signed asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to subsidize the sale of American pork to countries that made up the former Soviet Union. Based on sales from late last year, that subsidy will be worth $12.2 million.

"This whole thing amounted to two hours of the hogs that are killed every day," Faircloth said. But he added, "On second thought, I probably should not have signed the letter, being a hog farmer.

"But it was one of those casual letters that are circulated from one Senate office to another. It was signed by pretty much all of the senators from states that grew hogs."

Coping with conflicts

The General Assembly, not Congress, is the likely stage for key battles this year over hog farming. Producers and their opponents alike predict fights over counties' authority to zone hog farms, legal protections for contract farmers, odor issues and animal waste.

Within a few weeks, NCSU's Swine Odor Task Force will announce its recommendations for reducing odor from hog farms, and legislators will decide how to respond to them. Hunter, the representative from Murfreesboro, says he plans to introduce legislation that will toughen the rules for handling hog waste.

Nichols, the New Bern Republican who leads the House committee on health and environment, also is a member of the House Agriculture Committee. Together with Gary Bleau, the Republican chairman of the Craven County commissioners, Nichols is building a 2,400-sow farm in Craven County that will raise pigs for Murphy Farms.

"Hell, everybody up here has a conflict," Nichols said when asked whether his hog interests might influence how he votes.

"If any legislation came up directly affecting that industry, I would excuse myself from voting. I'll run the committee meeting, but I won't vote."

Leo Daughtry, the House majority leader, owns a part interest in Johnston County Hams, which cures about 60,000 hams a year and has annual sales of about $1.5 million. But he says his interest in the company presents no problems in dealing with hog-related legislation.

"We don't buy hogs," Daughtry said. "We buy hams from anywhere in the country we can get them. Saying we have a connection to the hog business is like saying Winn-Dixie does."

Another player is Charles Albertson, who occupies Murphy's old seat in the Senate. Albertson, a professional country music singer and retired U.S. Department of Agriculture employee, won election with strong backing from Murphy and the pork industry, including $13,200 in campaign contributions.

After two terms in the House, he was ranked the 82nd most influential of the 120 members. But when he arrived in the Senate in 1993, he was immediately named chairman of the Agriculture, Marine Resources and Wildlife Committee.

Democrat Marc Basnight, the Senate president pro tem, said he made his choice partly because Albertson knew agriculture and represented an agricultural district.

This year, Albertson's committee received additional responsibility. It's now the committee on Agriculture, Marine Resources, Wildlife and the Environment.

Albertson acknowledges the hog industry's support for his own campaigns and its importance to his district. But he said he's confident about his ability to be objective.

"I don't feel obligated to support them when I think they're wrong," Albertson said. "I would hope they think that I would do what's in the best interest of the people, trying to see the big picture."