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Devon Hall: Science Joins Community in Hog CAFO Country

By: Christine Grillo

In 1999, when Hurricane Floyd made its way to North Carolina, Devon Hall was working for the state highway department as part of a bridge crew. In that capacity, he was a first-responder, clearing the roads so that people could get out. The creeks and streams were overflowing, but people came out to see the hurricane’s damage, unaware that the roadway might collapse under them. As they scouted, Hall beseeched them to go home and stay safe.

“The flood water rose so rapidly, that I watched people and equipment almost get swept away,” he says.

He also saw dead livestock that was being swept away and dying. “It wasn’t just a few dead hogs,” he says. “It was hundreds of dead hogs and turkeys in creeks and streams, in the side ditches.” The carnage was so bad in some places that the bridge crews couldn’t work in those areas.

In 2002, Hall and his wife, Dothula, founded the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH), aiming to address issues in their own Duplin County and neighboring Sampson County. They started by organizing English as a second language classes for the Latinx community and provided emergency relief for people in need, funded in part by the United Way. Two years later, he met Dr. Steven Wing and Naeema Muhammad of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJ)—and that’s when science entered the picture.

Wing and Muhammad were involved in an epidemiological study known as CHEIHO, Community Health Effects of Industrial Hog Operations, which aimed to investigate relationships between the pollution created by industrial hog operations in eastern North Carolina and the health and quality of life of the people who lived near them. Wing was the lead author, working within the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and Muhammad represented the Concerned Citizens of Tillery, NC.

“A light went on for me,” says Hall. “I grew up as a fisherman and hunter, and I saw lots of things off the roadway [such as dead hogs] that I couldn’t explain because it was on private property. I didn’t know what to do, or what questions to ask.”

But while he recruited people for Wing’s study, he kept hearing the same things from people who lived near the hog facilities. They told him about wheezing, intense asthma, and said that some days they couldn’t go outside because the air made their eyes water and their noses burn.

“I experienced that too,” he says. “I knew there was a problem, but I hadn’t known where to look. CHEIHO was eye-opening.”

Hall continued to collaborate with Steve Wing and UNC Chapel Hill on several projects, and 2008 they were joined by Dr. Christopher Heaney, who began this work at UNC but is now an associate professor with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. At the Bloomberg School, Heaney is launching the new Community Science and Innovation for Environmental Justice (CSI EJ) Initiative within the Center for a Livable Future. So far, Hall and Heaney have led four water research projects, three air research projects, two pediatric health research projects, and four occupational health research projects that were conducted after community concerns were raised about the disproportionate and adverse impacts of IFAP on their environment and health.

Sadly, Steve Wing, who was known as a passionate environmental activist and researcher, died in 2016, at age 64. Seven years later, the research that began at UNC has transitioned to research and collaboration led by Hall, Heaney, the Bloomberg School, and the community activists in North Carolina.

“We did water sampling projects, where we looked at toxins in surface water [not drinking water],” says Hall. “We partnered with different groups like Waterkeepers, and different law firms that the researchers knew of.”

Heaney was big on protocol, says Hall. “You can’t contaminate the samples, he kept telling us. If we’re gonna do it, let’s do it right.”

Hall, as the executive director of REACH, continues to advocate for safer, more equitable communities, and to accommodate any research that sheds light on the injustices.

“What is the problem with CAFOs in the community?” he asks. “It’s not just the CAFOs alone. It’s the number of CAFOs, the number of animals in these communities. When you look at the roughly 2.5 million animals raised in Duplin [County], and the 2.2 million raised in Sampson [County], compare that to the 10 million raised in the entire state.”

It’s not the presence of the hogs themselves that’s the problem, though, so much as how their waste is disposed of. Waste is at the heart of the issue for communities.

“Contract growers are caught between a rock and a hard place,” says Hall. “They know how to raise animals, that’s what they know how to do. But they’re stuck with the waste. And we know the methods for disposing of waste are outdated and harms communities.”

He’s sympathetic to the plight of the contract growers. “He’s got a mortgage,” he says of a neighboring contract grower. “He’s barely getting by, not really making any money.” Somebody is making money, he says, but it’s not the contract grower, and it’s not the community. In his opinion, the people or corporations who are profiting should pay for improvements and pay for managing the waste properly (an opinion shared by a majority of Americans, according to this poll).

In 2018, neighbors of hog farms in eastern North Carolina filed a lawsuit against Smithfield Foods, alleging that they had suffered for years from the putrid smells emanating from the open-air hog waste lagoons, as well as flies, buzzards, and truck traffic. These plaintiffs said that Smithfield refused to spend money on technology that could address these problems. The jury in federal court found in favor of the plaintiffs and the neighbors were awarded $750,000 in compensation. The jury also punished Smithfield and its owner, the Chinese firm known as WH Group, with $50 million in damages, which the North Carolina legislature then capped at a lower number.

But around this same time, the North Carolina legislature passed a “nuisance lawsuit” bill that makes it impossible for hog farms to sue companies such as Smithfield and WH Group. Hall and REACH challenged these bills, but in 2021 a Court of Appeals decided in favor of the legislature. Plaintiffs such as REACH are now no longer able to sue, nor can they recover punitive damages.

“In the Smithfield case, people walked out with money recovery, but nothing changed on the ground,” says Hall. “The state regulatory bodies and state legislature are passing bills to block people from suing the industry.”

The polluters, in this case Smithfield, have to pay the people they’ve harmed, but there’s no injunction forcing them to change or improve their operations.

“So, next year, when the swine CAFOs are up for renewal, they don’t have to make any changes. They paid their fines, meaning that there was a monetary recovery, and now, hey, it’s back to normal, we can keep dumping on you. That’s the hurtful part of it,” says Hall. “They sprayed hog waste on our houses, our cars, they polluted creeks and streams and they had to pay for it, and now the General Assembly has helped them so they can continue to do that and it won’t cost them anymore. That’s the sad part about addressing these issues.”

The bright spot for Hall is the science. He and others like him in eastern North Carolina continue to organize community members to work with researchers such as Heaney, who are installing air pollution monitors and testing water samples. With enough scientific evidence, he believes, policymakers will not be able to ignore the ways in which CAFOs harm people and communities. The pollution monitors and water samples may tell the truth, and at some point, people will have to listen.

“I’m committed to the science. I believe wholeheartedly that it backs up what the people around here are saying,” he says. “Let’s find some solutions, let’s find some way to tell people how to protect themselves. Let’s be prepared and speak up, and let’s be prepared to go to the poll.”

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