Hog Production Scrutinized in PA

May 29, 2018 03:30 PM
Residents in the town of Berwick, PA have filed suit against a hog finisher, taking the case to the state's highest court.

BERWICK, Pa. (AP) — When the wind blows a certain way, some residents of Berwick, Pennsylvania head inside. They claim odor from a hog farm on the edge of town is unbearable.

The "finishing" barn - owned by Will-O-Bett farms - holds as many as 4,800 hogs. The plaintiffs say the field application of manure prompted their lawsuit.

Pennsylvania law shields farms from most suits making a nuisance claim, helping Will-O-Bett prevail in the lower courts. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court must now decide whether it will hear the case after plaintiffs filed an appeal this month.

"People spent their entire life working to pay the mortgage and they can't go outside now," said Malcolm Plevyak, a recycling company owner so upset over the hog farm that he ran for and won local office.

Due to pending litigation, Will-O-Bett owner Paul Dagostin declined comment. His lawyer, Lou Kozloff, called the plaintiffs' claims hyperbolic and unsubstantiated in a legal filing that asked the Supreme Court to decline the case. State regulators have found the farm to be in compliance and said it voluntarily implemented an odor-control plan even though it wasn't legally required.

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) allow for more efficient production of beef, pork, poultry, dairy and eggs. Lawsuits are common, including one filed in North Carolina that recently resulted in a federal jury verdict of nearly $51 million — later slashed to $3.25 million — against the hog-production division of Virginia-based Smithfield Foods.

Will-O-Bett, a 63-year-old family farm just outside Berwick, population 10,000, began raising hogs in 2013 under contract for Country View Family Farms, which is part of a conglomerate that includes the Hatfield Quality Meats brand of pork products. The farm fattens them from 60 pounds when they arrive to 270 pounds when they leave for slaughter.

Will-O-Bett stores the manure in a 1.6 million-gallon underground tank. The manure is applied to farm fields as fertilizer in spring and fall. The 40,000-square-foot barn that confines the hogs is ventilated frequently, neighbors say, with 10 fans pointed in the direction of town. 

"We want to enjoy our property," said John Molitoris, who lives down the street from Will-O-Bett. 

Molitoris and more than 100 other residents sued the farmers and Country View, but a judge cited the state's right-to-farm law in summarily dismissing their claims. A state appeals court agreed.

"We do not doubt that the plaintiffs are genuinely aggrieved by the odors associated with the Will-O-Bett's expanded/altered operation," Senior Judge Eugene B. Strassburger III wrote for Superior Court in March. "However, our Legislature has determined that such effects are outweighed by the benefit of established farms investing in expansion of agricultural operations in Pennsylvania."

State regulators, meanwhile, says Will-O-Bett has complied with all regulations. The Department of Environmental Protection has gotten numerous complaints about the farm over the years, but its inspectors have yet to find a single violation. The Department of Agriculture says the farm complies with its odor-management plan.

Neighbors have asked the high court to intervene, a longshot in the best of circumstances. The court accepts a fraction of the appeals it receives.

"I'm not doing it for money," said Kip McCabe, another plaintiff. "I just want the smell to stop."


Copyright 2018, Associated Press

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