GREENVILLE, N.C. – A federal court ordered Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, to allow a consultant to take additional samples of groundwater around 11 facilities that conservation groups contend have demonstrated groundwater contamination or hog waste lagoon problems. But Smithfield contends there’s no evidence of groundwater contamination.

In a statement, Stewart Leeth, vice president of regulatory affairs and chief sustainability officer, said third-party contractors have inspected company owned or operated farms or facilities, and all farms and facilities comply with federal and state laws. 

“No evidence of groundwater contamination was found,” Leeth said. “The farms in question have simply been identified through review of data and paperwork.”

In 2006, Murphy-Brown entered a consent decree with the Waterkeeper Alliance and Sound Rivers Inc. to resolve lawsuits alleging the company violated federal environmental laws. The decree included three phases aimed at addressing the pollution problems:

  • Phase I included the development and use of the Risk Ranking System (RRS) to evaluate 260 farms and facilities.
  • Phase II involved the evaluation of the farms that were not previously eliminated from review under Phase I.
  • Phase III involved the development of corrective action plans (CAPS) for the remaining facilities.

The groups said that an independent groundwater expert identified 11 facilities in the Neuse, Lumber, and Cape Fear River basins with demonstrated threats to groundwater or confirmed groundwater pollution. Court documents state that a final Phase II Scope of Work was issued in October 2013. The Scope of Work identified data needed to develop CAPs during Phase III and detailed methods for the collection of this data.

But the conservation groups said that since then, Murphy-Brown has refused to allow the independent expert to evaluate the 11 facilities, which is needed to develop actions plans to address the pollution problems. The groups filed a motion in US District Court to force Murphy-Brown to fulfill its obligations under the consent agreement. On Dec. 4, the judge agreed and directed Murphy-Brown “…to issue written notice to proceed…” to the contractor.

“This ruling is the latest step in a 10-year process that grew out of a consent agreement,” Leeth said in the statement. “Smithfield Foods remains committed to the obligations we made, and we have already satisfied many obligations under the consent order. This includes the completion of the first phase of the Groundwater Risk Ranking (GRR) program which determined the vast majority of the farms were found to present no harm or risk to the environment.”

Leeth added that 260 company owned, or operated farms or facilities were studied for potential risk over the last 10 years and nearly all were eliminated from further study in Phase I of the program.

“Some farms have ceased operation or were otherwise closed or sold,” Leeth said. “Only eight farms or facilities owned or operated by the company remain for further evaluation in Phase II.”

Conservation groups applauded the court’s decision. “In a victory for clean water, this federal court decision requires Murphy-Brown to make good on its promises to clean up pollution at its hog facilities in eastern North Carolina,” Geoff Gisler, senior attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), said in a statement. “Finally, we can start to determine the severity of the pollution and figure out a plan to fix the problems.”

“Nitrate pollution in groundwater, which can result from leaking lagoons, land application and breaches in waste piping at industrial swine production facilities, poses serious health risks to people consuming untreated well water and can contaminate nearby streams and rivers,” said Kelly Hunter Foster, senior attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance. “We are pleased that the court put an end to Murphy-Brown’s four-year fight to block sampling and cleanup of groundwater pollution at these company owned swine facilities in North Carolina.”