Neighbors take hog farm to court

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SALEM, Ohio – Neighbors of corporate-owned hog farms in northwestern Ohio are the latest to join a growing trend of asking for a visit with neighboring farm owners – not over the fence or at the dining room table, but in the courtroom.

Eighteen neighbors of Cooper Farms and Pharaoh Ltd. hog operations in Paulding County filed a class action lawsuit in late May alleging the farms discharged chemicals and manure into the air and onto their land.

All of the plaintiffs live or own property near farms owned by the companies.

Reasons. In a filed complaint, the plaintiffs allege Cooper and Pharaoh were negligent in operation of their facilities and caused intrusion of odors and a nuisance on their property since 1999.

The suit also alleges the defendants have been exposed to “severe manure spray, dust and odors” and contaminated surface and groundwater at their homes for the past four years.

The plaintiffs maintain the farms have “failed to … reduce … levels of contaminants or discharge of odors or airborne particles or waste.”

The neighbors also believe the farm has “allowed an unreasonable quantity of hogs at their premises.”

Injuries. Each of the 18 plaintiffs is said to have suffered permanent and personal injuries to the mind and body, including claims of pain and suffering, lost earnings, and medical expenses in excess of $20,000.

Each is seeking at least $275,000 for the loss of use and enjoyment of their property and the reduction of its value, nuisance, annoyance and health risk.

Attorneys advised all of the plaintiffs not to speak to reporters.

No representative of Cooper Farms was available for comment.

Farm background. “They are reluctant to go to court, but they feel it’s the only option,” said David Sproat, lawyer for the plaintiffs.

“It’s the classic David and Goliath example,” pitting mega farms against their neighbors and smaller farms, said Sproat, who also pointed out that several of the plaintiffs are active farmers or have a farm background.

David White, executive director of the Ohio Livestock Coalition, said he believes this is potentially a precedent-setting case involving animal agriculture.

Chief complaint. The neighbors’ chief complaint is they are suffering various maladies, according to the lawyer.

“This [suit] is not anti-farm, it’s not being done to try to cripple agriculture. My clients are seeking compensation for damages” to their health, Sproat asserted.

Tests have shown those living near the farms have been subject to hydrogen sulfide and ammonia vapors released from decomposing manure.

National news. The story of two of the plaintiffs, Robert D. and Diane Thornell, was featured in a New York Times article earlier this year.

In that article, one California doctor said neurological damage experienced by the Thornells was due to hydrogen sulfide poisoning from the Cooper hog farms.

That same doctor came to Paulding and noted that all of the plaintiffs have various health issues due to their level of exposure to the gases, Sproat said.

In addition, several have tested positive for antibodies of the hepatitis E virus.

The virus is typically found in swine herds and can be transmitted to humans through contaminated drinking water, Sproat said.

“These are not city folks who have moved here and expected the suburbs. They understand manure is used on fields, but it’s the intensity of odors and gasses” the group is protesting, he said.

Not first time. David Sproat was one of several lawyers to represent neighbors of Buckeye Egg Farm in Licking County three years ago.

In September 2001, a judge awarded $19.2 million to Buckeye Egg neighbors for their complaints of noxious odors and water pollution.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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