A faint rotten-egg smell drifts off a covered lagoon a hundred yards from a well-traveled Missouri gravel road.
This is battleground — ground zero in what some see as a high-stakes fight for the future of Missouri agriculture.
But in Kansas City law offices 80 miles away, combatants prepare for another showdown over the smells drifting from this 80,000-head hog operation.
Is the stench an obnoxious affront to neighbors or simply the “odor of agriculture” that comes with life in the country?
It’s a fight Charlie Speer has waged for nearly 15 years. The Kansas City attorney has won almost $10 million from Premium Standard Farms and its affiliates in trials since 1999, and this summer praised a $1.2 million settlement with an unrelated southwest Missouri operation as having “set the bar” for future settlements.
Hog odor lawsuits are nothing new. The issue of what constitutes an agricultural nuisance has been argued anywhere hogs are raised.
In an internal memo accidentally e-mailed to The Kansas City Star last year, Smithfield attorneys estimated the company’s exposure to litigation against Premium Standard at $150 million to $200 million. Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, purchased Premium Standard in 2007.
Speer says he has at least 350 cases pending in Missouri against large hog operations.
Members of seven families, many of whom have lived in Gentry County most of their lives, are suing the Premium Standard operation known as the Homan farm. Of the 15 plaintiffs, 13 received $100,000 apiece in a 1999 lawsuit against the same property.
Their argument is the same as it was 10 years ago: Stifling odors from the northwest Missouri hog confinements and lagoons are making their lives unpleasant.
“This lawsuit is on the theory that they haven’t done anything to abate the nuisance, and we want the jury to send the message to stop it or we’re going to keep coming back,” Speer said.
None of the plaintiffs is alleging health issues beyond those associated with bad smells.
Homann acknowledges mistakes made in the 1990s, including spills and effluent releases, probably warranted the legal judgments against the company in 1999. But he defends Premium Standard’s environmental performance since then.
Stanley and Jean Berry, who received $100,000 apiece in the 1999 lawsuit and are plaintiffs in the current one, insist the odors are as bad as ever.
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