“Wastelands,” by Corban Addison; Alfred A. Knopf (464 pages, $30)
Given all that’s going on in the world, I thought I’d reached my limit of outrage. But Corban Addison’s “Wastelands” raised my anger threshold to new heights.
It is a story of corporate greed, of politicians who follow the dictates of special interests and of people who possess a sense of entitlement that outweighs concern for anyone else.
What makes it worse is that we’ve seen it all before. Whether it’s the pharmaceutical industry, the tobacco business or fossil fuel giants, profits always trump not only safety but also compassion and logic.
In this case, the company is Smithfield Foods. More than 2,000 farmers in North Carolina raised pigs for Smithfield on what are called “concentrated animal feeding operations” that raise a number of ethical issues. With CAFO, thousands of animals are housed in extremely close (and frequently filthy) quarters, raising the specter of animal cruelty.
CAFO farming also raises the problem of waste disposal. Feces and urine are drained into waste lagoons the size of Olympic-size swimming pools. When these reach capacity, they are hooked up to giant guns and sprayed — supposedly to fertilize surrounding fields. In theory, it makes sense. Unless, that is, you have thousands of hogs defecating. And it rains, filling the lagoon to overflow. Or the occasional hurricane, saturating the surrounding soil and occasionally getting into the water supply.
Additionally, residents who reside near these farms are assaulted by unbearable stench. They also face noise pollution from trucks that pull up in the middle of the night to retrieve the bodies of deceased animals (at least those not cannibalized by their barn-mates) that didn’t make it to the processing plant.
Tests reveal that traces of feces can be found on nearby residents’ clothing and on their countertops. It is — or should be — unacceptable, profits be damned.
Mona Lisa Wallace, a legal Don Quixote who regularly tilts at corporate windmills, took up the neighbors’ cause. In doing so, she and other attorneys risked their businesses. These suits take years and cost millions to pursue. And though it seems that the issues are clear, Smithfield had its tentacles everywhere, making victory and a payout problematic.
The company had the help of some legislators, who not only sponsored bills that would limit these types of lawsuits, but also wanted to make them retroactive to the ones filed by Wallace.
What is genuinely infuriating is that Smithfield knew the problem existed. It was aware of comparatively inexpensive alternatives that would barely dent its profits and sharply reduce odor, but it found excuses not to install them.
Addison is the author of four novels and his skills at storytelling are evident here. He simplifies complicated issues and while his sympathy is clearly not with Smithfield, his reportage is relatively balanced. His research is rigorous and he builds the story to a fascinating denouement worthy of a suspense novel — a good suspense novel.
Curt Schleier is a book critic in New Jersey.