At the center of debate over Costco plant in Fremont: How 17 million chickens will affect the area

By Barbara Soderlin / World-Herald staff writer

Randy Ruppert speaks at a public hearing in Fremont in April. The Dodge County resident is executive director of Nebraska Communities United, which opposes the Costco project. "We don't think there is enough oversight in Nebraska." Ruppert said.

Randy Ruppert speaks at a public hearing in Fremont in April. The Dodge County resident is executive director of Nebraska Communities United, which opposes the Costco project. “We don’t think there is enough oversight in Nebraska.” Ruppert said.

Opponents of the chicken plant that Costco wants to build in Fremont have sounded an alarm about its effect on the region’s air and water quality, even suggesting it could harm drinking water in Omaha, 25 miles down the Platte River.
Adding 17 million chickens to eastern Nebraska’s livestock population, they say, could put Omaha in a situation like Des Moines, where the city’s water utility is suing three northwest Iowa counties over high levels of nitrates. The pollutant in the Raccoon River comes from runoff upstream of chemical farm fertilizers or livestock manure spread on fields.

Opponents also say discharge from the chicken slaughterhouse itself could foul waterways, and that raising and transporting the chickens could damage air quality and spread disease.

That’s one view of the poultry project.

On the other side, the utilities responsible for drinking water in both Omaha and Fremont dispute that the project will raise nitrate levels or otherwise harm water. They say Nebraska chicken farmers would be putting less manure on more land than farmers in parts of the country where chicken manure has fouled waterways, and that the valuable manure would take the place of existing fertilizer, with no net change.

They also say environmental laws are sufficient in Nebraska — which already raises, slaughters and processes a huge number of cattle and hogs — to keep water safe and keep the state’s small-but-growing poultry industry in check.

The company that will operate the plant said that its use of modern technology, its adherence to the law and its contractual expectations of poultry farmers above and beyond what the law requires will keep contaminants out of the region’s water supply.

The debate promises to play out over the next two years as the plant’s operators jump through the hoops required to open the plant.

Nebraska Communities United, which sprang up this year to oppose the Costco project, says it won’t back down. It’s making plans to push for stricter environmental controls and is planning events in Omaha to communicate concerns to local residents. The group wants to ask state lawmakers to review existing standards for fertilizer application and look to strengthen those.

“We don’t think there is enough oversight in Nebraska,” because Nebraska hasn’t had this size of poultry operation before, said the group’s executive director, Randy Ruppert, a Dodge County resident.

The project would increase Nebraska’s broiler chicken population by about 20 times over its 2012 level of about 900,000 birds, the most recent agriculture census data available. Detailed current data is not available for Nebraska because the state has a relatively small chicken population. (Broiler chickens, the ones people eat, are counted separately from chickens raised for egg production.)

The Costco project would surpass in size the state’s current largest broiler chicken business, MBA Poultry, which has a slaughterhouse in Tecumseh and a production plant in Waverly. MBA products are sold under the Smart Chicken name. Still, Nebraska’s chicken population would be well below that of some Southern states — Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas — each of which is home to 1 billion or more chickens.

In response to a request from concerned citizens, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future this fall wrote to Fremont officials, urging them to keep a close eye on the project.

“There are serious human health and environmental concerns associated with large poultry processing plants,” the researchers wrote to Fremont city officials in the September letter.

The center, affiliated with Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, names “factory farming” as one of its concerns as it researches how food production affects the environment and public health.

Their concerns come as Americans increasingly scrutinize every aspect of egg and poultry production practices, and as the poultry industry grows to meet record U.S. consumption of chicken — 90 pounds per person this year, more than beef or pork.

The researchers said the city should develop a plan to monitor the project even beyond current levels of oversight, test for problems and hold Costco accountable if problems occur. Separately, the environmentalist group Bold Nebraska has called for a third-party study of the environmental impact, citing concerns about pollution of groundwater and wells that supply household drinking water.

Fremont’s interim city administrator, Brian Newton, told The World-Herald neither an environmental impact study nor extra oversight is necessary.

He and Scott Keep, president of Omaha’s Metropolitan Utilities District, said current levels of fertilizer-related pollutants in drinking water are well under allowable limits and are not expected to rise as a result of the project.

“We’re not close to having a problem,” Keep said.

Keep, who raises corn in Iowa, said any poultry litter spread on fields as fertilizer would replace a similar amount of chemical fertilizer. “There shouldn’t be any more fertilizer being put on the fields than there is now,” he said.

Ruppert questioned that, saying more oversight is needed. It’s human nature, he said: “If a little is good, a lot is better.”

Opponents also have raised concern about pathogens like E. coli passing from manure to groundwater; project backers say those pathogens are killed when farmers compost the litter.

Keep said MUD pays close attention to industrial projects, and would oppose the plant if it posed a danger. A bigger concern for MUD has been the quantity of water available, but he said the amount the poultry plant would use — in the neighborhood of 700 million gallons a year — is large but still a fraction of the amount pumped by Nebraska farmers for irrigation.

Keep also said Omahans would not be in danger in the case of a leak or discharge from the poultry plant itself. MUD draws water into three treatment plants and can shut off any one of those to allow pollutants to pass through, while serving Omaha’s water needs from the two others.

And Newton, in Fremont, said his city is experienced in handling wastewater from meat processing. It currently treats wastewater from the Hormel pork slaughterhouse and from the Fremont Beef plant, which processes beef but does not slaughter cattle.

“This is completely in our wheelhouse,” he said.

Fremont already had plans to build a new water-treatment plant, and the new plant will be sized to handle Costco’s needs. In addition, Fremont is building a new anaerobic wastewater treatment lagoon — something the city has not had — which will help reduce workload on the new treatment plant, Newton said. Costco is expected to pay half the $10 million cost of the lagoon, he said.

The city is also equipped to sell Costco the amount of water and power its plant will use, Newton said. The plant will use about 2 million gallons of water a day. Fremont currently uses an average of about 6 million gallons a day, with a maximum demand of about 18 million gallons. The city is permitted to draw as much as nearly 100 million gallons a day, Newton said.

And facing declining demand for electricity, Fremont has enough capacity to serve the plant’s power demands. The addition of a large ratepayer will help keep costs down for residential ratepayers, Newton said.

“As a utility manager, you only dream of getting something this large,” he said. “It makes your system more efficient.”
While proponents hail the project, opponents work to call attention to the poultry industry’s serious environmental impact elsewhere in the country.

They point to the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where since the late 1970s officials have been battling an excess of nitrogen and phosphorous from farms in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. The pollution killed crabs, oysters and fish and threatened businesses including marinas, fisheries and restaurants. Today the bay is under EPA limits on nutrient pollution, and surrounding states are creating plans to meet pollution reduction goals.

Regulations governing poultry waste have not kept pace as the industry has grown and become more concentrated in the Chesapeake Bay region and in what’s called the Broiler Belt, from Delaware to East Texas, according to the Pew Environment Group in a 2011 report, “Big Chicken.”

U.S. production of ready-to-cook chicken has more than doubled since 1990 and hit a record 40.6 billion pounds in 2015, up 4 percent from the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As a result of heavy pollution, some poultry states now require farmers to file nutrient management plans, documenting how farmers will use chicken waste. The plans require detailed soil analysis.

Nebraska does not require these plans unless a farm is required to have a permit as a large animal feeding operation. Such a permit for chicken barns is required only if the operation has the potential to discharge waste into state waters, a Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality spokesman said. Agency inspectors make that determination.

“Typically, if sited and designed correctly, these do not require permits,” said the spokesman, Brian McManus.

However, Lincoln Premium Poultry will require nutrient management plans anyway, and will provide farmers access to a consultant who can help them write the plans, said Walt Shafer, the company’s project manager.

“We absolutely are going to do it right,” he said.

Lincoln, working from an office in Fremont, is run by former executives of poultry companies including Pilgrim’s Pride, along with an executive of Crider Foods, the Georgia company that supplies Costco with canned chicken.

State and local officials say the state’s existing poultry industry has not caused concern.

In Waverly, where MBA Poultry processes chicken, public works director Tracey Whyman said the city has not had a problem with odor, water or air pollution. State permits require wastewater samples to be taken and reported to the state and federal environmental agencies and to the city, Whyman said. Waverly Mayor Mike Werner called MBA a good corporate citizen.

A spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality said it has not had to take any enforcement action against MBA and has not had any reports of pollution discharge into state waters.

Still, the growth of MBA hit some opposition this year. The Gage County Board in September narrowly approved a local farmer’s application for a permit for poultry barns after earlier rejecting it. Concerns included how the farmer would handle manure and any dead birds. Nearby residents opposed the farmer and packed the County Board room, according to media reports.

County boards in the region around Fremont may face similar concerns from residents as the Costco project unfolds over the next two years.

barbara.soderlin@owh.com, 402-444-1336