Lawsuit raises stink over Indiana's Right to Farm laws
DANVILLE, IN -- Richard Himsel said the stench from the hog warehouse next door to his property is so foul that his wife moved out.
When his daughter visited him last summer, she stayed for only a half-hour and left, Himsel said. He himself tries to avoid being in his house — the same Danville home where he was born and his children were raised — for too long.
The problem has not only created a foul odor in the neighborhood; it's caused a stink in his own family.
Himsel, his wife, Janet, and two neighbors are suing 4/9 Livestock LLC, located less than a mile from his property, as well as his cousin, Sammuel Himsel; and his children, Cory and Clinton Himsel, who operate 4/9 Livestock.
Himsel said the problem began about two years ago, when the livestock company operated by his relatives built a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, next door to his home. The feedlot included two 33,500-square-foot buildings that warehoused up to 8,000 hogs and collected, stored and disposed of millions of gallons of feces and urine in the fields near Himsel's property, according to a 19-page complaint filed in Hendricks Superior Court.
Himsel is one of four plaintiffs who are alleging that the presence of the feedlot near their properties have diminished the quality of their lives. The civil lawsuit also challenges the constitutionality of Indiana's Right to Farm laws, which, the complaint says, unfairly protects giant corporations and industrial-scale livestock operations. The nonprofit Hoosier Environmental Council filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs Wednesday.
Himsel came from a farm family. He owns a 26-acre farm in rural Danville where he planted crops and raised livestock until he retired in 2000. He now lives alone in the two-story wooden home he inherited from his parents. His children have moved out and so did his wife, who now lives with her daughter. Himsel said the odor coming from the livestock less than a mile southwest of his home causes his wife to have headaches and a sore throat.
"I love my wife, and we can't live together. She's sick all the time," Himsel said. "My children don't really want to come and visit."
Sleeping, he said, has been difficult, and staying outside to enjoy the fresh air is no longer an option. Himsel said he tried to sell the house, but it stayed on the market for six months without an offer. He was often told that his house is beautiful, but the smell had rendered it unlivable.
The other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Himsel's next-door neighbors Robert and Susan Lannon. Also named as a defendant is Co-Alliance LLP, an Avon company that owns the hogs at the feedlot.
Kim Ferraro, the plaintiffs' lawyer and senior attorney for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said she won't know who will be representing the defendants in the case until after the court notifies them of the lawsuit. She said that likely will happen early next week. Elizabeth South, general counsel for Co-Alliance, said in a statement that the company just became aware of the lawsuit and "will reserve further comment until we are able to review and evaluate the Complaint." Efforts to reach the other defendants were unsuccessful. The numbers listed for Sammuel Himsel and his children have all been disconnected.
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants built the feedlot close to where people live, despite the health hazards involved. Such facilities generate large quantities of wastes, as well as air pollutants, such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane, the suit says. Health problems could include bronchitis, pulmonary disease and asthma.
More broadly, the lawsuit says, Indiana's Right to Farm laws, which are meant to help farm families, only protects the interests of giant corporations that control contract growers confining thousands of animals.
"Indiana's Right to Farm laws can be profoundly harmful to rural Hoosiers like the Himsels who, in many cases, have lived in their homes for decades, and suddenly find themselves living next door to thousands of animals that produce the same amount of raw sewage as a small town would," Ferraro said in a news release.
The state's Right to Farm Act, in particular, which was originally enacted to protect farmers from lawsuits by urban and suburban residents who moved to rural areas, now protects conglomerates, not individual farmers, Ferraro said.
"No other industry or economic sector enjoys the privilege of knowing state government agencies and courts must interpret the law to serve and protect that industry's special interests," according to the lawsuit, which also alleges violation of the plaintiffs' equal protection and due-process rights.
The property where the feedlot is located also was not zoned for a massive agricultural operation. That property was zoned agricultural residential. But the defendants, according to the complaint, received approval in 2013 from the Hendricks County Commissioners to rezone the property to allow for a more intense agricultural operation.
Construction of the feedlot was finished in September 2013 and about 8,000 hogs were moved in the following month.
The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory damages. They're also asking the court to issue an injunction ordering the defendants to end what they say has been a nuisance.
Richard Himsel works full-time, managing housekeeping at a factory in Crawfordsville. Usually, he comes home to a strong odor. Aside from the hours he sleeps at night, he said he tries to stay away from his home for as long as possible.
"I just leave, go to town, get me a sandwich. I go visit friends. Just anything to occupy my time that I don't have to stay here," Himsel said. "I don't even want to eat here."