Elsie Herring dies: The hog-farm critic personified environmental justice for many

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Elsie Herring, a Duplin County woman who became one of the most outspoken critics of the state’s hog industry, died Wednesday, according to an announcement from the N.C. Environmental Justice Network.

Friends and colleagues of Herring’s remembered her as someone who helped put a face to the struggles that have long been reported by rural residents living near some hog farms.

“These stories are personal but when it comes to injustice, she was willing to tell how it affected her and her family. ... Couldn’t anybody tell her story the way she could tell her story,” Devon Hall, the co-founder of the Warsaw-based Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, told The News & Observer. Herring was willing to tell her story to any audience, Hall added, whether it be in Duplin County, Washington, D.C.., or Green Bay, Wisconsin, another pork-producing state.

Herring was a member of the NC Environmental Justice Network’s board at the time of her death, but had also served on REACH’s board and worked as an organizer for both organizations. Herring, who was raised in Duplin County on land that has been in her family since 1891, became involved in the environmental justice movement in the 1990s after moving home to take care of her mother only to find that the neighboring farmer had started raising pigs.

Testifying before a U.S. House committee in 2019, Herring said, “When we go outside, we can’t stay outside for very long because the odor is so offensive that we start gagging, we start coughing, our heart rate (is) increased. We become depressed, we have a sense of hopeless- and helplessness.”

Hall added that Herring’s environmental justice work extended beyond the hog farm issue to calling for coal ash cleanup and other environmental concerns in Eastern North Carolina.

“In fighting for justice for her family’s health and land heritage, which was persistently threatened by an industrial hog farm, she became a trailblazer for environmental justice in Eastern North Carolina,” the NC Environmental Justice Network wrote in its announcement of Herring’s death.

Part of hog farm nuisance lawsuits

Herring’s outspokenness often drew the ire of North Carolina’s hog farm industry. In March, NC Farm Families published a blog post disputing Herring’s account. The farmer near Herring’s house had, according to the post, planted a grove of trees between the spray field closest to Herring’s house and her property to create a buffer. In recent years, it added, he had stopped using that field.

The post labeled Herring’s accounts “propaganda.”

In a 2014 lawsuit against Smithfield subsidiary Murphy-Brown, Herring addressed the company’s attempts to ease her concerns, stating that even with the planted trees and an updated spray system, she still needed to keep her doors and windows shut to keep the odor of hog waste out of her house.

“The episodes of odor, flies and other nuisance are unpredictable,” the complaint stated.

Herring was one of about 500 plaintiffs in federal nuisance lawsuits against Murphy-Brown. Smithfield announced a settlement in the cases last November after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a jury in a 2018 case against a Bladen County hog farm had properly decided the case, but that the damages phase of the trial would need to be redone with a new jury.

Herring was a party to that settlement. Shortly after, she told the N.C. Health News, “It’s been long overdue … and is a glimmer of hope that maybe this is the road that will bring about some sustainable change that makes living in our homes enjoyable again, which is how it should be.”

Elsie Herring and environmental justice

Jamie Cole, a member of North Carolina’s Environmental Justice and Equity Board, met Herring while Cole was working for the N.C. Conservation Network.

“She knew that speaking up and telling her story was important, not just for her but for her community and beyond that,” Cole said. “She was someone that turned environmental justice from something that I intellectually understood to something that I could really feel and see and connect with.”

About five years ago, a group of environmental advocates visited a biogas facility at a North Carolina farm. Biogas on hog farms works by covering waste lagoons with a tarp that swells with methane and other gases; that mixture is then sent to a processing facility and turned into purified natural gas.

Supporters of the method point to its climate benefits — it keeps methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from escaping from the lagoons into the atmosphere. But many people who live around the facilities have expressed concerns that it would keep intact the waste lagoons and spray fields that have been central to the nuisance lawsuits.

When Cole walked back to her car on that visit five years ago, she found Herring standing nearby. Cole recalled expressing optimism about the promise of biogas, but Herring was skeptical.

To Herring, the biogas projects posed a solution to a different problem from those that neighbors of hog farms had expressed so many concerns about. Walking around the facility, Herring told Cole, she smelled the same odors that she smelled outside her front door.

“She saw this as a Band-Aid on a problem that went much deeper than what we were being presented with,” Cole said, later adding, “That’s the biggest lesson I got from Miss Elsie is the importance to really slow down and talk to people who are living through that experience.”

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