By Barbara Patterson, government relations representative, National Farmers Union
The town of Smithfield, Virginia, located in the southeast part of the state, has a long history of animal production. The famous Smithfield ham, a product with a geographical indicator that requires all of its production be done within the city limits, originated in the town in the late 1700s. Since 1936, the town has been home to Smithfield Foods, Inc., the world’s largest pork processor, which was recently purchased by Shuanghui, a Chinese meat processing conglomerate, for approximately $4.7B. Smithfield Foods employs over 2,500 employees in Smithfield, a town of slightly more than 8,000 people.
Last month, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe announced more than $8 million in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) for several projects in the state. The CDBG program is authorized by a federal law, the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. The block grants are to be used for “critical and unmet community needs including those for housing rehabilitation, public facilities, infrastructure, economic development, public services, and more.” The town of Smithfield received one of the 12 projects awarded, the “Pinewood Heights Redevelopment Project Phase III” a payout of $1 million of taxpayer funds. Pinewood Heights is a neighborhood in Smithfield located behind the Smithfield Foods factories. According to an overview of the project, the proximity to the meatpacking plants has contributed to many environmental problems including offensive and disruptive noise, odors, and dust. Several homes are located within just a few hundred feet the processing facility and waste lagoons filled with animal processing waste (parts unsuitable for rendering, blood, and waste water). The redevelopment project plans to transition the area from a residential community to a commercial and industrial area over a decade.
As part of the project, residents will be relocated with mortgages or rent equal to their current payments in Pinewood Heights. This is a multi-phase project spanning several years. The $1 million award announced last month was just the latest installment of funding for this ongoing project. In 2011, Smithfield received $1 million for the project, and in 2006, received $1.4 million, totaling $3.4 million to provide residents with better and safer residences. The town intends to apply for additional funds as the project moves forward.
Oftentimes, rural communities in America are forced to cope with and pay for the expensive externalities avoided by major food processing facilities. As a result of the consolidations within the livestock industry that have occurred over the last couple of decades, most livestock are raised and processed in very concentrated environments. Externalities from this livestock production include compromised water quality and safety; poor air quality and associated respiratory diseases; and human antibiotic resistance. Large concentrations of manure impair waterways, create pervasive odors and air quality issues, and decrease property values.
The Smithfield Foods processing facility in Smithfield abuts the Pagan River in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In 1997, a U.S. District Court imposed what was the largest civil fine in a Clean Water Act case to Smithfield Foods and its subsidiaries. The Court fined Smithfield Foods $12.6 million for discharging illegal levels of pollutants from a slaughterhouse. At that time, the company had more than 5,000 violations of permit limits for phosphorus, fecal coliform, and other pollutants. These funds from this fine were not used for cleanup, but instead went to the U.S. Treasury.
The state of Virginia, through federal taxpayer funds, is paying to clean up the mess that Smithfield’s processing facility has created. Smithfield has been faced with violations of the Clean Water Act before for unlawful discharges. The company is responsible for the impairment of quality of life for the residents living in Pinewood Heights. Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for Smithfield’s pork processing practices and the impacts on surrounding communities.