North Carolina advocate who successfully fought hog industry dies

Elsie Herring, who died this week, was the public face of the many rural North Carolinians who felt besieged by the proliferation of industrial hog farms. In a region where complaining about these operations was considered both risky and futile, she confronted the industry over its pollution for more than two decades and never let herself appear intimidated.

Born in 1948, Herring grew up on land that had been in her family since the 19th century, outside the town of Wallace, on the state’s coastal plain. She left for New York in the 1960s, during the Great Migration, but returned in 1993 to care for her aging mother. By then, she said, a hog operation had gone up next door, and the owner later began to dispose of animal waste by spraying it on his fields. 

As the stench drifted over the property line, “I was being held prisoner in my home,” she said in an interview two years ago. “You can’t cook out no more — all those things that most people take for granted. It’s a real challenge to mow your grass, or if you need to wash your windows, or anything outside. We had to stop hanging on clothes on the line.”

Herring complained to state regulators. In response, the landowner’s attorney sent her a letter in 1998 accusing her of “harassment” and threatening to seek a restraining order. “If you violate any such restraining order,” the attorney wrote, “we will ask the Court to put you in prison.”

The threat didn’t stop her. “You have a right to fight injustices,” she said. “My grandfather was a slave, and he was born and raised on this land. He had all 15 of his children, and my mother had all 15 of her children, in this house.”

Herring appealed to the governor, state and federal lawmakers, local health officials, the sheriff and police, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Justice. She became a community organizer for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. She joined more than 500 neighbors who sued a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods in 2014, claiming the odor, flies, and truck traffic constituted a nuisance. FERN wrote an in-depth story on the legal battle in 2019.

The industry called Herring “the most-quoted neighbor of a hog farm on the planet” and described her claims as “inaccurate and untrue.” It also said the lawsuits had no merit.

Juries in five cases, though, sided with the plaintiffs, awarding neighbors almost $550 million in 2018 and 2019. The U.S. District Court in Raleigh reduced the awards to about $98 million because of a state law limiting punitive damages. 

Smithfield appealed several of the awards. Last November, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling favorable to the neighbors. The multinational pork producer immediately announced it would settle the cases — an outcome that left Herring feeling vindicated. “Our lives,” she said, “have been destroyed by the industry.” 

As news of Herring’s death reached social media, advocates lauded her as a hero. “She was sweetness and fierceness, determination and light, unwavering in her demand for dignity and #environmentaljustice for all who live in the shadow of NC’s industrial hog farms,” tweeted Michelle Nowlin, co-director of Duke University’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.

“Her strength was a righteous song echoing loudly through the halls of power,” wrote environmental activist Brian Powell. “Her strength was a lullaby of hope hummed softly in the ears of the restless.”