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Consumers, farmers debate frivolous suit bill

By M.J. Ellington (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Supporters say a Senate bill would protect family farms from frivolous lawsuits. Opponents say the bill would leave consumers with no way to fight large farming operations.

Speakers from both sides, including many from North Alabama, attended a public hearing Wednesday before the Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation Committee. The committee will decide later whether to approve the measure.

Supporters say the bill by Sen. Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, gives added protections against frivolous lawsuits for farmers operating in compliance with state and federal law. The supporters include the Alabama Farmers Federation and its member farmers.

Opponents' stance

Opponents, who include environmental groups and the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association, say that if the Legislature passes the measure, consumers will have little way to fight pollution and other environmental concerns raised by large-scale corporate animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs.

"I know what manure smells like. I also know what open cesspools smell like," said Judy Holt, a third-generation farmer from Ider.

Holt said she has cattle grazing in a pasture next to her

She grew up on the farm, but said a large-scale pig farm that moved into her community eight years ago changed how she views government restrictions on farm operations.

She said the farm pollutes the environment, threatens the water supply and creates odors that make outside activity unpleasant.

Holt said she asked to have CAFOS excluded from Benefield's bill but they were not. She said the state needs laws that allow average consumers to fight large-scale cattle, hog and poultry farms. State environmental oversight has not been effective, she said.

"The few times that ADEM (the Alabama Department of Environmental Management) came to inspect, they saw nothing, they smelled nothing and they found nothing," Holt said.

Holt said this is the fifth year she and her neighbors have come to Montgomery for hearings on similar bills.

Rebecca McKinney, an attorney speaking for the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association, said if the bill passes, it would "effectively close the door on" one avenue that consumers have to fight farm pollution.

Association spokesman Niko Corley said the bill would lead to more CAFOS, lower property values near the large animal farms and add to pollution.

"This is not a bill to protect small farmers," he said. "Small farms suffer with this bill. The major hog farm operations benefit."

Corley said when large farms pollute, it is taxpayers who pay to clean up the environment afterward.

Support in Madison

Stuart Sanderson of Madison supports the bill.

Sanderson, who owns Henderson Farms, said he has not been involved in a lawsuit over his corn, soybean and wheat farm, but he believes farmers face a real threat from suits.

He said laws that help family farms concentrate on farming rather than on lawsuits are important because more and more family farms are at risk of dying out.

Sen. Tom Butler, D-Madison, a member of the committee, said he supports the bill. He said currently a farmer may have 50 different lawsuits on the same issue from 50 property owners in a subdivision.

The bill would reduce the likelihood of such occurrences, he said.

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